The Spiked Thresholds of Bliss

I recently went to the celebration of a friend’s life, who passed away not long ago at the tender age of 38 from cancer, leaving behind a two year old daughter and a twelve year old son.

It was, as you might expect, a heart-rending memorial, but she had been keen for people to enjoy it as a joyful reliving of the many marvels her life had brought. About a hundred of us gathered on a field above the river near her home and sang some of the songs that she as choir mistress had taught us, shared a few memories, and read some poems (one of which was the poem posted here). And, surprising as it might sound, it was joyful, not just in remembering all our funny adventures with this colourful being who we could not stop loving now, but also in recalling that life is insensitive to our clinging: it keeps moving on without looking back in anguish, only racing towards its meeting with the ocean.

Two things occurred to me on that field: one, that death is so utterly real that it renders everything else frivolous and temporary in comparison. It was the first time I had ‘lost’ someone close to me; all the funerals I had ever attended had been of nonagenarians who lay in their coffins with an expression of deliverance on their static faces, while family members happily ate strawberry and cream on scones in the sunshine. These were people who had watched the door every day for decades in anticipation of the Angel of Death. For those saying goodbye to them, bereavement doesn’t sound like the right word: bereliefment might be a better term for it.

The other thought was this: “When the sky weeps, the earth rejoices. Don’t be sore that your sheets get wet.”*

It’s not much solace to those of her family mourning her, for whom their sheets are not just wet through but fairly ripped to shreds. But seeing her twin sister since then, and other relatives and friends who held her in a cocoon of reassurance and round-the-clock care for the last months of her life, the refrain that keeps returning is of the exquisiteness of the atmosphere surrounding her, utterly peaceful and loving in every way. Some likened it to the atmosphere around a birth; others said it reminded them of a saint’s tomb.

So many golden filaments of love being sent from hearts dilated in waiting and hoping that it wove a light, permeable, glowing cloud around her bedside, impossible to reproach or hate, unless you only saw the facts from the frosty distance of a medical report. Everyone who passed through those doors felt this coalescence of sadness and wonder, the way a parent watching their first child leave home gazes after the receding train through eyes blurry with borrowed anxiety, and a heart blown open by the realisation that they were not their property in the first place. This is the path they take alone, threatened by trials and yet free.

I wonder how we can find it so easy to forget – or ignore – that everything we think we possess, including our bodies, families, health, homes, wealth, kudos, career – will eventually be no more than a few words in a historical document, at the most. (And if that’s all digitised, how permanent would it be?) Yet those very things occupy so much of our mental space that we allow them to outscream the wisdom of our better nature, which is to hold them lightly in the palm of the hand, instead of clinging to them like a drowning sailor to a rope.

But death always seems to put a sour note into things. It never happens the way we want it to; it’s never fair. Rowan Williams observes in a recent book review of old German and Arab fairy tales that these archetypal stories offer an antidote to the cotton-candy world of Disney’s logical conclusions and pop psychology morals. They portray (more accurately, I think) the way in which our chaotic world can bring ‘bad’ things to innocent people, and yet assistance also comes from unexpected, wondrous sources. The protagonists reach a point at which they can only really throw themselves on the mercy of the Divine and accept whatever may come. The interesting part of it is trying to work out what it all means, the state of questioning itself.

Rewind to the very beginning of life and you’re faced with the other end of that spectrum, that spiked threshold of life on which the most astonishing pain gives way to the most astonishing bliss. Once the sharpness of a contraction ends, there is an endorphin rush to balance out the suffering. But – and here’s the stinger – if you’ve anaesthetised the pain of the contractions, the hormones that bring on the bliss afterwards are inhibited. Hence decades of screen births involving buckets of blood, screams of agony and women pinned down to hospital beds like they were having a Gremlin surgically removed from their bowels. Virtually every woman who’s had a non-intervention birth would tell you that it could not be more different (though her mother-in-law might still have a few scare stories up her sleeve).

Perhaps it seems strange to begin the year with this post, especially as Cavebabe the Third is due in barely two months. But I get a strange sort of satisfaction in the reminder that everything is passing. It makes it much less stressful knowing that it’s not ultimately in my hands, and that the only wealth to delight over is the appreciation of what is here now. How many people regret not telling someone they love them once it becomes too late for them to hear? How would your life be if you loved people as though they might be gone from your life tomorrow?

In conclusion, life is peppered with insults to our idea of what it should be like, and isn’t it all the more wondrous for that. May this year be filled with good stuff for you, and if that’s not the way the dice roll, then at least you can be safe in the knowledge that it’s made you wiser. Or, with all that good material, a writer.

 

(* To be included in a forthcoming collection called the Aphorisms of Cavemum, available very exclusively hand-written in saffron dye on antique gazelle skin from a bloke called Abu on a street corner in Marrakesh.)

To Be Heard and Held

In the past 5 years of blogging, directing my thoughts world-wards through this silent megaphone on a screen, I’ve almost always been blissfully ignored by the self-appointed wardens of Islamic values that skulk the internet. Either this means I’m not being inflammatory enough, or (and this is a vain hope of mine) they are put off by the prospect of an online verbal evisceration. I’m quite happy not to be on their radar, though; anything for a quiet life.

Unfortunately, however, every time it seems that Muslims might be doing something interesting on the world stage, the condemnations start pouring in.

In a behind-the-scenes video she shot for the new film American Sharia, Yaz the Spaz (I’m guessing she doesn’t know what this means in the UK, unless she’s trying to wrong-foot her detractors by insulting herself first) receives a few brave hurrahs in the comments section, before a whole barrage of strangers inform her in various tones of indignation that she was “too close to the men”, that the film did not represent true Islam, and – that classic put-down written by people on their iPads while on the Tube on their way to work in a merchant bank – “this isn’t what the Sahabah would have been doing”.

Whilst silently suppressing the screams of frustration, it is important that we avoid responding with the same kind of blinkered reactions, and instead endeavour to understand that human psychology is, much like our DNA, 90% identical to that of a carrot. The other 10% depends on whether anyone ever allowed you to play with dangerous implements as a child.

Carrot.

A carrot.

This is the memo that it seems the trolls missed: Moralising, judging, attacking, or condemning to the most scorching regions of hell DOES NOT ACHIEVE THE DESIRED EFFECT of changing a person’s ways any more than telling elephants to stop being large and wrinkly turns them into mice.

People are too stubborn for that. We have good reason to be. Can you imagine if you changed your entire direction in life, your approach to God, humanity and the universe, every time someone told you the way you were meant to think? We’d be bouncing back and forth across the squash court of spirituality all our lives.

See? Being stubborn makes you happier.

See? Being stubborn makes you happier.

Much as it’s annoying to be a parent to intractable children when you’re trying to get them to sit in their car seat and put their belt on for the fifth time in a day, if you put yourself in their position, you’d kick up a fuss yourself. They’re only practising for being a teenager and having to stick up for themselves; you’ll appreciate their wilfulness when they refuse to obey whatever the alpha (fe)male of their class tells them to do.

There is the even more annoying possibility that the person doing the reprimanding might be absolutely right. The point, however, is that shoving their rightness down another person’s throat won’t make them swallow it. (Much more problematic is when it isn’t certain that they are right, only that their conviction makes them feel horribly offended when you don’t collapse at their feet with sobs of gratitude for their kind advice.)

This might just be a case of culture shock: being brought up in Britain among people who shudder at the idea of being thought bossy or rude, when I travelled to places such as Morocco, Kenya and Saudi Arabia it became clear that a lot of people had an opinion on how I should dress, eat, talk, pray, chew gum, wear flip-flops etc., and that they took it as a moral duty, like a doctor travelling to Sierra Leone to fight ebola, to stamp out my silly foreign tendencies.

I smiled and nodded so much I almost wore my face and neck muscles right through. Then I went back to England and revelled in being able to wear whatever I liked much more than before.

Free to be furry

Free to be furry.

How might those well-meaning bossypants have transmitted their pearls of wisdom in a way that would have stuck? Taking time to become friends, being an example of what they believe is right, educating through humour, thoughtfully exploring why certain behaviours are better (and we need to ask ourselves what ‘better’ means – more in line with the status quo, or more conducive to happiness?)…all these might have been helpful, and shown a good deal more adab (the Islamic concept of good manners).

But in extreme cases of obstinacy, like my own, I have come to the conclusion that the only remedy is unconditional acceptance. Compassion melts away defenses like ice before fire. You don’t need an itemised list of your sins read out to you: all you need is to feel accepted despite them. The Muslims I met who taught me more about Islam than anyone else were the ones who did no preaching whatsoever, but instead welcomed me with open arms, showed trust and generosity and care without even knowing how to speak my language, and forgave whatever breaches of their cultural codes I made.

That is merely a reflection of my experience of Allah: an all-encompassing embrace of care and kindness, even though I’ll never be up to scratch. And that is why, despite the trolls and the fundamentalists, despite Da’esh and lone wolf attacks, this feeling of being heard and held casts everything else into the shadows. The only way I can bear those shadows is by remembering the warmth of the light.

Two States

Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.

The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
working glitchlessly
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.

The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.

The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
hidden aquifers
and while my hands are
pairing socks
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
earth-to-be
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
edible gemstones
the ore of that ground called home.

The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.

Tripping the Writerhood Switch

With 87 kph winds currently howling through our valley, telephone and internet connections are intermittent. All of us who depend on the web for work are thrown back and forth between a flurry of activity while the connection lasts, and a kind of restless lethargy when it goes off again. Something doesn’t feel right; it’s as though our world comes in and out of focus without our own volition.

And it’s true that something isn’t quite right when work determines the day so powerfully. A prolonged bout of poor health recently obliged me to lie on the sofa for a full day with a fever, devouring the entire Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin.

lf

Turning the last page I was almost completely recovered. I had become ill because of working too hard, rushing about without achieving very much, but it was more the speed with which I was working – not unlike a squirrel frantically storing hazelnuts for a winter that is always immanent – that brought on the illness.

So, taking off a glorious week to lie in bed, read novels again after what seems like eons, crochet water bottle carriers, and potter about in my garden with cuttings and seeds, I’ve been reflecting on how I can square my desire to achieve with my need for a sane pace.

One of the less stressful things I’ve been working on is a writing group for mums, complete with breastfeeding babies, scattered popcorn, felt pens and potties. We get a surprising amount done in the space of an hour and a half, despite all the interruptions; my theory is that mothers have such a compressed urge to write that when they get half the chance it explodes out, filling a very limited period of time as well as an ordinary writer would struggle to fill a whole morning.

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The output is pithy, full of ideas that could later be explored and extended…once the last load of laundry is done and the kids are asleep and the dishes…oh, never mind.

This is the knot I’ve always got myself into with my writerly commitments: I add up all the ‘work’ I do – paid, house, garden, shopping, ferrying around kids, remedying ailments, conflict resolution, advising on deep philosophical dilemmas for small children such as how the sky stays up, etc. – and the time left over for anything I wish to do by myself is as small as a microchip in the neck of the hulking St. Bernard of my day.

So I think: “Well, I can always sleep another time! Like, when I’m dead!” And I stay up until 3am writing at a pace I’d usually reserve for fleeiing dangerous criminals chasing me with nunchucks. Then the predictable results the next day of rattiness, poor communication, conflict creation instead of resolution, bad answers to philosophical dilemmas (such as “You’re giving me a headache”), no laundry done for days, no clean dishes, cat food casserole after food was chosen badly in the supermarket due to eyes being half-open, etc. etc. etc.

There are a few ways to deal with this equation, as far as I can see.

1) Don’t write anything until the children have left home. By this time you may be rocking in a padded cell in Belmarsh, but this will only make your magnus opus more sellable after your death. Everyone loves an insane, dead writer.

2) Miraculously get a publisher to pay you to write, thus converting your funnest activity into your paid work and inserting it into the list of daily jobs, rather than adding to it. (This is the part I am stuck on. Most publishers want to see a finished piece, which is currently impossible to achieve – see above.)

3) Trickle along, catching half an hour here and there to write something which you have no time to edit, which is incidentally great training for writing well the first time around. This process is MUCH easier in company; it’s as if you are in a hall of mirrors and the luminosity generated by focusing your attention on a creative stream is reflected back, multiplied. Thus the benefits of a writing group (see my previous post Creativity Catalysts).

There is another possibility, which is tied to b), that of winning a short story competition, and thus bringing your talent to the attention of readers and publishers and judges, hopefully facilitating the book deal. But first prizes don’t always respond to genuinely great stories; often it has more to do with trends (ugh, the word alone makes me cringe) and the internal politics of publishing, i.e. what will sell.

But the point of writing isn’t to win anything, if we really come down to it. It’s about being right there in the writing, in the moment, lost to everything else for a while. The day I spent reading about the wizard of Earthsea I realised that my ego had been out on a long, fine rope all that time, while I was engrossed in the story. I wasn’t analysing the metanarrative or memorising facts, as I would be with non-fiction or news. I wasn’t planning, or remembering, or critiquing. There was nothing but the story playing out in my consciousness.

And the experience isn’t so different with writing. While the editorial, critical mind is out of the way, and the subconscious blooms out of its usual hiding places, none of the trivial worries of the world matter – for a time.

Lost in Scribblation

Lost in Scribblation

Two things have come out of these past weeks for me. One is that reading fiction is not some idle luxury for people who don’t have anything else to do. It can be a genuine healing for people who have a hard time making time to rest, and whose minds are usually chattering too hard and too loud to listen to the need to do so.

The other is that work itself is not a mode we switch into at will, switching it off at the end of the day, the way my internet is doing at the moment. We don’t put our minds into suspended animation when we clock off, nor do we put our souls on ice when we clock on. Work and living are enmeshed so deeply that it turns us into temporary automata to try and separate them. As Khalil Gibran once said, ‘Work is love made visible’.

We can work restfully, and live purposefully, and the seams between the two can fade to faint topographical lines on the maps we live on. And we can try, if at all possible, not devote any of our creative energy to the fantasy of that miracle occurring, the one with the book deal, and the cleaner, and the entire day to write…for if it did happen, would the writing be such a sweet release?

On One Line

Books have become my butterflies
alive for just one day or less
before the surf of routine comes
crashing down overhead
raising my feet
from ocean bed
helterskeltering along
the pages soaked
and distant.

These beings are reincarnated
every time I snatch
a moment’s
breath
released from their oceanic
suspension
open, new again
the plots and connections
different this time.

Books have become a bus stop
scratched with teenage loves
willing the passerby to want
to flee their own lives for an hour
a day, a night journey
to foreign towns, a round trip
when the back page flips shut –
but I always miss
the transport.

Books have become my hoopoes
trilling some way off, a
flash of black and white
too fluttersome to stay whenever
I approach.
Gone!
Perhaps I’ll catch a feather.

And on one feather I can fly
hit thermals so high even one line
would make me a kite and glide
over terrains no-one will ever see but I.

On just one letter I could ride to
caverns, canyons, cascades
altitude lakes blue as eyes
dry, red-streaked rocks and corporeal dunes
spruce forests so dense sounds
would fight to reach our ears
clearings where stand in moonlight
roundhouses of polished wood
in which I find circles of lovers
of the Word.

They must exist!
And I am going
by any vehicle
necessary
to find them.

Tasbih*

crickets

http://www.whydontyoutrythis.com/2013/12/someone-recorded-crickets-then-slowed-down-the-track-and-it-sounds-like-people-singing.html?m=1

It seemed a hiss

the drone of mating call

of insects lost in long grass

grating on short nerves

white noise on a muggy August eve

but that is just the speed

we think at. That’s the pace

we expect all else to race to

and when their mindless buzz

is heard with their ears

it becomes
 song

for no reason but to sing

because that is the thing that must

be done

in ecstasy at being small before the One

How many more songs are being sung

by entities so small and fast-lived

that their chorus doesn’t register for us?

Too fine

cat’s purr five thousand hertz wide

distant whirr of planetary slide

a jive when played apace with human lives

and now I hear sense in my daughter’s cries

as tantrum slows to feverish high

I hear the words she tried to croon

the Mama, listen, Mama, pick me up –

it was a tune that spun on faster wheels
than mine, mismatching my headbeats

but that was the song her fever sang
the exultation it expressed
while I was too depressed
with longing for a quiet night
the silence of the stars as they creak past or
gentle buzz of crickets on a lawn
the white noise Nature gives the
world-worn so they’ll find peace there
in music they can’t hear

All things are in tasbih
for One who is to all these things
Listening.

(* Tasbih is an Arabic word meaning glorification – i.e. of Allah, of God. It is said in Qur’an that every thing in creation has its own unique way of singing its ‘tasbih’ to God.)

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

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For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

1451382_756163931066762_51885419_n

For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

1451382_756163931066762_51885419_n

For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.