Muslimah at a Public Pool

This is where your invisibility stands out at its starkest. Where teenagers snog in bikinis with recently-inked tattoos in styles that will go out before the summer does, fitness fanatics show off their moves, and even middle-aged couples smooch over the cooler with flesh rolling out of optimistic swimwear, there you are, nervously twitching a sarong over your shoulders because you feel exposed in a one-piece.

The justifications are clear: it’s a heat wave, neither your house nor your car has A/C and driving three kids including a baby who cries every minute of every hot car journey makes it impossible to get any further than the campsite a few minutes’ walk away. Your sanity thus stretched, getting into cold water is not just necessary, it is un-do-without-able. And with this many buttocks on display, modesty is surely relative.

But then there are those who know you are Muslim, and there are questions in their faces and at the edges of their comments. Ah, you must be one of those ‘liberal’ Muslims. You’re a free thinker – you don’t stand for all those poxy old-fashioned chauvinistic rules. You’re one of us!

A shudder goes through me at this thought, at the assumptions carried so blithely through so many minds. To paraphrase Ali G, ‘Is it cos I is white?’ There are priviledges that white Muslims have that most of us aren’t even aware of. I can’t imagine some of my Moroccan friends daring to go to a public swimming pool when their parents would hit the roof if they did. But there’s this creepy camaraderie that you get with white non-Muslims when you aren’t hijab’ed to the eyeballs. It’s as if they are saying, ‘You’re OK. They haven’t got you completely. You’ve still got one foot in our territory.’

It makes me laugh to think how infuriating it is to have to scroll down the list of countries on one of those countless petition websites to find United Kingdom (or United States, for that matter). What are we doing down there, after Afghanistan, Barbados, Togo and all those random islands in the South Pacific no-one has even heard of? Shouldn’t they just put us at the top, so we don’t have to spend all those nano-seconds scrolling down, reminding ourselves that the rest of the world exists? Good grief, our thumbs get tired!

Tangent over. This is a just a late-night snapshot of my two-cultured brain, on the one hand glad that I can pop to the shops without covering my head and worrying that Muslims will think less of me (I live in a very open-minded community), and yet cringing when I do cover my head and people stop me to ask questions, or corner me into describing where my faith lies on the liberal-conservative spectrum. If I’m hijab-less because I’m pressured into not wearing it, does that really mean I am free?

What strikes me as being on of Islam’s greatest strengths is that when it really comes down to it, no-one can judge anyone else on their faith at all. ‘Allahu ‘Alim’; only Allah knows. And how are the people of Paradise described in Qur’an, over and over? ‘Alladhina amanu wa ‘amilu salihat’: those who believe and do good works. It doesn’t even qualify them as Muslims, or having a religion at all. Is that not the most progressive, out-there kind of religion there is?

You wouldn’t believe it if you read the news (and I am boycotting it: I don’t want to feed horror stories into my baby’s mouth though my milk). But the news has never been an accurate reflection of the way the world is, only pinpricks of horror in the vast fabric of normality that are gathered together to make us see nothing but a fistful of blood. It’s isn’t reality at all, only shock waves filtered through journalists’ lenses, managed by editors whose salaries are paid by advertisers who want readers to be kept agog by more and more horror. We have to keep reminding ourselves to lift our heads from our newsfeeds and stay present: no website will represent reality to you better than your own eyes.

And in the same way I have to remind myself that onlookers don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface of me, veiled or otherwise, and I don’t know what going on under theirs, either. Good people still carry prejudices unawares: people with prejudices can still be good people. My ideas of what they ought to think are still only my ideas, and may well be wrong anyway. God guide us. Amin.

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Home Birth Hat Trick

Whenever I mention to people that I gave birth at home, the usual response is ‘¡Qué valiente!’ – or ‘That’s brave!’

The truth is less glorious: not being too fond of hospitals, especially labour wards with their somewhat notorious reputations, it was as much out of an aversion to going to hospital as bravery that kept me home.

With my third home birth under my (considerably loosened) belt, I have to admit that none of them would have happened were it not for a few key factors:

1) Excellent care from an independent midwife – an endangered species these days. Having a warm, grounded, experienced person who believes in your ability to birth naturally is a huge help. In a way, the less she interferes, the better a job she’s doing. It’s an expensive option (in the UK even more so than in Spain) but well worth it for the peace of mind and sense of confidence she conveys.

2) Having straightforward, healthy pregnancies. This I can’t claim any credit for. All my babies were head down, back to front (which is a lot less weird than it sounds), I had low blood pressure, and apart from minor complaints was generally OK throughout each pregnancy, thank God. Although I do know two women with chronic fatigue as well as one with severe Crohn’s disease, all of whom gave birth naturally at home, if you have complications in pregnancy it’s always wise to consult your doctor and midwife when considering a home birth.

3) Being born at home myself, and growing up hearing nostalgic stories of how my mum went into labour (unable to locate my dad, with no food in the house), and having ice cubes put in her mouth (it was mid-August in Granada, before the era of A/C) while she gazed at the Alhambra…alright, so only the last part sounds romantic. But I’m still convinced that hearing affirmations all my life that home birth was quite normal, safe, and actually filled with wonder programmed me to believe the same would be true for my own births. Even the weird stories were evocative somehow, like an ex-boyfriend who was born onto a picture of Ronald Reagan’s face in a newspaper. Come on, you don’t get that in a hospital.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse. (Imagine if it was Ed Miliband!)

Then there are all the other elements that helped along the way: a crowd of home birth aficionados living in my town who enthusiastically supported my decision; having my parents nearby to look after my older kids while I gave birth; being well nourished (very important); having the kind of house that I actually wanted to give birth in; not sitting in an office chair for long hours or commuting during pregnancy (apart from being exhausting, sitting in a chair for long hours tends to misalign the uterus and contributes to more breech births); living in a hilly area where I had to do a lot of walking up and down steep slopes (apparently the best preparation for labour); and so on.

As you can see, none of this is really my own doing. I was incredibly lucky, or blessed, however you want to look at it. The only thing that I have to own up to is my stubbornness. I just never imagined myself giving birth in hospital. Some people say it is the naïvety of inexperience that makes women decide to have a baby at all first time around, let alone give birth at home, but second or third time – well, that’s just plain obstinacy.

To be sure, I am more aware now of things ‘going wrong’ (you’ve already heard the horror stories so I won’t drum them in). In these – rare – cases being in a hospital is preferable, but any midwife worth her/his spurs would get you there as soon as things started going pear-shaped. Another way to look at it, of course, is that things didn’t go pear-shaped at all: it’s just the way they went.

Still, in less dramatic cases, being at home with a sensitive, skilled caregiver is still preferable to being in an impersonal place where staff changes when shifts end and the itch to free up a bed might cause them to hurry things up (the classic ‘Pitocin – epidural – foetal monitor – obstetric delivery’ pattern). If you choose to give birth at home you won’t have a queue of students coming into the delivery room while you’ve got your legs in stirrups, that’s for sure.

Description      English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

Description
English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

I can’t knock hospitals, though, for those times when they are necessary. Many a woman has had an excellent hospital birth, some angel of a midwife who appears at a crucial moment, or next-generation equipment that saved a baby’s life. The few times I’ve been treated for anything at a hospital, I’ve been immensely grateful particularly to the nurses, who used all the subtlety at their command to make light conversation to distract from a needle or other sharp proddy thing going in somewhere.

This kind of caregiver provides not just a service but also warmth, candour and intimacy at a time when you are vulnerable. However, this is also what a good home birth midwife will offer: she will help you trust that your body knows what it’s doing, with a little bag of kit to keep an eye on things just in case.

While I would encourage any woman who is of sound body and mind to go for a home birth if she wants one, the reasons for doing so must be more because of the benefits of birthing at home rather than the fear of going into hospital. The benefits are not just the lazy girl’s prime motivation, i.e. not having to get out of bed, but also being able to make your space as comfortable and familiar as you like. Third time around I actually managed to have the nice tea lights, essential oils burning, best friend massaging acupressure points with Neroli oil, and Calendula flowers floating in the birth pool (previous times I was focussing so much on the contractions I didn’t care two hoots about environment).

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

All three of my children were born into water, in a birth pool like the one pictured above. This meant I didn’t need to use drugs: the warm water is a natural pain reliever and is really quite blissful. You need to be at least 5 cm dilated (some midwives will wait for more) to get into it as it can slow the labour down otherwise. But overall, drug-free labours tend to be shorter; epidurals, for instance, blind you to when your body is contracting and make it hard to push, slowing the process down and raising the likelihood of an assisted delivery.

Speaking of pain, I was recently told by a first-time mum-to-be that she wished her mother would stop telling her she wouldn’t be able to handle it. Really, you CAN handle it. A man would pass out, but you won’t. Women who claim to feel less or no pain in labour just recategorise the feeling mentally, describing it as ‘discomfort’ or some other sensation. In Ina May Gaskin’s game-changing Spiritual Midwifery (after reading which I was pregnant with Caveboy the 1st within about twenty seconds) contractions are described throughout as ‘rushes’.

Highly recommended if you aren't freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals.

Highly recommended if you aren’t freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals having their nipples tweaked by their equally hirsute menfolk.

I would say that only about a hour in each of my births was actually painful, and this time goes very fast. Breathing into it, embracing the feeling as one step closer to meeting your baby, riding this primordial, volcanic wave of a feeling will make it seem less like something to be fought, reducing the amount of adrenaline (produced by fear) in your body. Tensing up during the contractions creates lactic acid around your muscles, which is what causes cramp and increases the sensation of pain, hence relaxation being everything in labour .

And so much of giving birth, perhaps all of it, is just allowing something the deepest recesses of your brain already knows how to do. There have been cases of women in comas who have given birth. I thought of that as my midwife told my friend that my pushing was ‘involuntary’. That’s exactly how it felt: not forced in the slightest, just allowing this innately instinctual movement to take place (and despite having a 4.130 kilo baby I didn’t tear).

The greatest bonus to not using anaesthetics is that I was fully conscious all the way through the labour. All sorts of interesting insights drop into your brain between rushes. At one point it occurred to me that while it might not seem very spiritual while you’re going through it, what is spiritual about birth is that perhaps for the first time in your life, you willingly submit to going through fairly extreme levels of discomfort, purely out of love for another. Love is so huge, so brilliant, that it makes pain look transient and insignificant beside it.

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens this morning. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens recently. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

This alertness continued afterwards; I remember being positively chatty with number 3 when he showed his head above the water. He was pretty perky as well – another benefit of not using drugs (babies born this way breastfeed better, too). Despite a day of some pretty heavy post-partum pains I was high as a kite for pretty much a month off the endorphins provided by a natural delivery.

But it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about these wonderful birth experiences, knowing that for so many women birth is traumatic. It breaks my heart that my experiences place me well into the minority among my peers. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can reclaim the beauty of birth, the empowerment it offers us (We did it! We brought another person into the world! That was us!). Part of this change is physical (the postmodern lifestyle, in which everything takes place virtually, is a disaster for birth preparation) but a larger part of it is psychological.

Both women and men need to turn our conditioning around and deliberately erase the negative messages seen in movies, or told to us by thoughtless older women whose own births didn’t go smoothly. A non-interventionist birth paves the way for the most intense endorphin high ever experienced in the human body – both for the mother and the baby – and creates the ideal conditions for bonding while protecting the mother from post-natal depression.

Rather than the question “Why make a woman experience pain in labour when she can have drugs?”, we can ask ourselves, “Why prevent women from having such a blissful connection to her body and her child?” Childbirth is a leap into the unknown: even women with dozen children say that every birth was different. What makes it amazing is seeing it not as falling, but as flying.

Rewild the Child (no Rewiring Required)

A quick thought while the baby is asleep in the sling…

It’s an ongoing thing for most of the mothers I know, the complaint that ‘my kids just don’t know how to play’. The blame usually gets put at the feet of gadgets, things that can be used to while away long hours on planes (those rubbery iPad covers with alien-like protuberances so kids can play car games spring to mind) or car journeys, or sitting in dentist’s waiting rooms, or just hanging out at home. The 3 month Spanish summer holidays are looming and the thought is troubling me as to what my kids will get up to all that time.

When there’s no toys or electronics to play with, any length of time seems unbearable; one friend recounted how her son (9 y.o.) had a tantrum at the thought of a 40-minute wait in an office yesterday, but once he’d finally accepted the reality of it he calmed down and waited patiently. It was the idea of having ‘nothing to do’ in all that time that freaked him out initially. “We used to be able to wait for much longer!” she recalled, “We didn’t need stuff to play with…we’d just play.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/apr/08/time-to-rewild-your-child-george-monbiot-video?CMP=fb_gu

Another contact, a city planner, gave a great resumé of how kids aren’t really able to play ‘wild’ as most of us used to do when we were kids: ‘Urbanist Enrique Peñelosa once said “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everyone else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for car mobility than for children’s happiness.” And that’s the crux of it, cities are built for cars, not kids/people.’

Although I get a lot of ‘Muuuum…I’m bored” at our house, I’m relieved and delighted whenever I see my kids playing (always with other kids, or at the very least with each other) without anything in the way, not even a swing or a roundabout. Creative types often comment that boredom was essential to the development of their art when they were children. I’ll rehash an old theme by saying the same’s true for me: I grew up in a couple of small villages where I did a lot of reading, making up stories, fiddling about on the guitar and just daydreaming.

Visiting my son’s old Waldorf school recently, which has moved (strangely enough) to my parent’s old house, I noticed a breeze block with a large piece of wood on top in the garden. The teacher commented that they don’t put anything to play on in the yard so that the kids will invent things: the wood and brick were put there by the kids to balance on. In another corner was a teepee made of bamboo. Kind of cool, don’t you think?

What it really comes down to, and what makes me sad when my kids pester me for Lego et al (it’s been birthday week…always the cue for weeks of pre-emptive materialistic preoccupation) is that we’ve become so accustomed to seeking happiness outside of ourselves, in an object, a phone, a toy…even another person. Playing with friends isn’t deriving happiness exclusively from them – it’s finding it emerges spontaenously from the alchemy of toegtherness.

We were at the plaza yesterday for a reading of Don Quixote in 30 languages (the most exotic being Mongolian), Cavegirl buddied up with some English kids who were playing by some rocks, pretending it was a kitchen, and I was warmed by the thought that imaginaton isn’t dead, and kids’ society is still capable of pulling out fantastical games from the ether. Innocence isn’t dead; we just need to have the space sans gizmos, to remember it. That’s a comfort.

This Meteorology Article Just Blew My Mind. Check Out What Happens at Line 33. Seriously.

While London suffocates under a horrific quarter-inch of snow, here the worst part of an Alpujarran winter has kicked in for the second time: wind so forceful it’s upended our wheelbarrow full of firewood, and almost made it impossible to close the front door. It drives rain through the gaps in the not-very-energy-efficient window frames, leaving puddles amid the Lego on the kids’ bedroom floor. The children are up and down like the FTSE all night, while a mysteriously clanging pipe by our bedroom window chimes the hour.

As usual, I have been unprepared for the effect that all this has on my overall degree of bonkersness. I start entertaining wild notions that my skull is actually made up of millions of hairline fractures, invisible even to an MRI (not that I’ve had one) into which the wind miraculously creeps – bypassing the masonry entirely – rendering me significantly more irritable, depressed, argumentative, critical, and – to use the scientific term for it – unbearable. Under the influence of this stinker of a bad mood which no amount of essential oils, chamomile tea, dark chocolate or videos on YouTube of babies being scared by farts could subdue, I finally had one of those moments in which bloggers

go into an italicised bold indent for effect.

I started asking myself, ‘if I include a stock photo of models wrestling with deep and meaningful thoughts, will it help me finally become the life-coaching guru I’d always dreamed of being? Will I finally be able to sell an e-book explaining the meaning of everything that will pay for my early retirement? Will my words be printed in mock typewriter font over evocative photos and shared virally on Facebook? Could this even be – dare I think it – Oprah-worthy?’

Yago at sunset

This is what I look like when I am wracked with deep and meaningful questions.

At this point I laugh heartily, then have to stop when my belly hurts so much I worry I’ll go into labour a month early.

This was the actual thought: that there is nothing so tremendous, elemental, powerful or terrifying as the wind. Rain you can avoid with gumboots and an umbrella. Sun you can revel in, or escape under shade if it gets too much. Heat can be beaten with A/C or a plunge into cold water. Thunder and lightning? Electrifying when experienced from the inside of a house.

But you can’t just avoid the wind. Even inside a building it makes its existence known. And if allowed to come to its logical conclusion, it can turn into a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami…Meteorological caprice might make it a soft and refreshing zephyr one moment, or a landscape-changing titan the next.

dramatic interior

“Woman expressing vulnerability in the dramatic interior.” Sorry, couldn’t resist.

It also struck me, as my mind went on its habitual meander into hypothesis, that for people whose landscape is dominated by desert, the wind must be even more unavoidable. Imagine being in a tent, or a small, cramped stone building with a palm-leaf roof, as the ancient Arabs would have lived – and indeed some still do – when a sandstorm hits. The word for wind in Arabic is ريح, rih, with a hard, pharyngeal h that even sounds like wind thundering through a crack in a wall.

Interestingly, the word for spirit in Arabic is from the same root: روح, ruh. The linguistic relationship reflects a semantic one: both are invisible forces only discernible by way of their effects – the things they drag along in their wake, the trees they tousle and uproot, the resistance they put up when you try to drive against them with hard, flat surfaces such as egos. It is a foreshadowing (you could cal it a ‘fore-shuddering’) of the powerlessness we feel at the unavoidable approach of death.

It’s quite a different picture to the classic Western notion of ‘spirit’, which has always conjured up images for me of dull conferences on esoteric themes, and women (or men) with long floaty hair who don’t say ‘hello’: they simply gaze meaningfully into your eyes, burning their greeting into your psyche like they’re tearing open a portal for you to comprehend what ‘hello’ really means.

When the early Arabs considered Allah breathing His ruh into each human being it must have seemed more like an inexorable power racing through every atom of their beings; for the average English person I imagine it feeling more like a pleasant summer breeze, carrying the scent of bluebells. Perhaps a song by Enya plays softly in the background.

Yet our word ‘spirit’ is also derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning ‘breathing or breath (respiration, or of the wind); breath of a god’. It appears in English referring to a supernatural entity from the mid 14th century on, and from the late 14th century to mean ‘state of mind’, ‘Divine substance’, ‘Divine mind’, ‘God’, and so on. The 4th century Latin Vulgate Bible used the term to translate the Greek psykhe (sound familiar?) and the Hebrew ruah (a not-so-distant cousin of ‘ruh‘).

Indo-European Tree. Big family!

Indo-European Tree. Big family!

In my home town, which swirls with thousands of people with long floaty hair and penetrating gazes who will talk to you at great length about the awesome power of raw food, coffee enemas and ayahuasca detoxes, there is an undercurrent of belief in the New Age notion of ‘manifestation’. That is, that whatever you are going through has arisen because of your mental state, your negative emotions, your attachments, traumas, toxic thoughts etc. etc.

Which can generate, on the one hand, a kind of god-complex in which people think they are capable of anything, and on the other a great deal of blame and guilt when someone is suffering from some major affliction, which must have been caused by their un-enlightened thoughts. As my mum said, “Whoever it is who cured themselves of Stage 3 terminal cancer by eating a macrobiotic diet, I’d like to meet them;” they’ve spawned an entire industry, one that is often trailed by stories of failure as desperate people pin their hopes on repeating someone else’s miracle cure.

While it’s certainly true that stress and anxiety contributes to ill health, and I’m sure we do have far greater power than we are aware of, there is a point at which things go beyond our control. We aren’t the centre of our own personal universes; we aren’t the masters of our destinies. That idea is so terrifying to the five-year-old narcissist in us that we block it out with the delusion that if we build up enough money, a glorious enough reputation, a beautiful enough body/wardrobe/home, we’ll be safe. There’s even a longevity diet for people who want to eat their way to immortality.

Surrendering into the knowledge that you are in far better hands than your own ends the deep argument that your mind is engaged in when it tries to be in charge. We need need, just as we need illness to make us stop and rest, or disasters to make us take stock of our blessings, or annoying people in our lives to teach us how to deal with them in a more mature way than clocking them on the head with a chair. When there’s a giant great hole in or lives, there’s the chance that extraordinary things might fall into it. When you’re stuck you start looking for openings; when you’re down you start to look up.

If Oprah calls, I’ll be outside double-pegging my washing.

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.)

Art and Honesty: When Slick Makes You Sick

Workout videos always amuse me. This afternoon I was trawling through YouTube to find a good pregnancy yoga video, my 4 1/2 daughter beside me. First we found one of your classic vids, an unusually slick production for the UK, complete with a wood fire in the background, random Zen-like objects on the shelves and French windows onto a tranquil patio (though we could still see the cameraman in the glass of the woodburner).

Warmed up by now, I keep searching and find an American prenatal pilates workout, which exceeded all my expectations (not to mention my fitness levels). The glowingly tanned instructor sashayed onto the screen like a starlet, the tracking shots zoomed in dizzyingly from all over (even the ceiling), and she kept talking about buns. Where I’m from buns are something you eat. Can’t you just call them buttocks and get it over with?

The music was energetic enough to send me into early labour, in fact I had to turn it off after a couple of minutes thinking I was having a kind of cultural heart attack (and I’m half American).

Still looking for decent exercise vids, we then found another British yoga clip that brought things back down to a manageable level of reality. The instructor wore an old tracksuit, the handheld camera jiggled about, there was a terrible glaring light in the background, and after every line the instructor pursed her lips in an apologetic sort of grimace. Ah, that’s more like it! A healthy dose of British realism.

While chuckling to myself over this transatlantic comparison during my familiar pregnancy-induced insomnia, I realised that this isn’t a million miles away from where Muslims are – in the global, cultural digisphere – from the kind of slick PR values currently steering the zeitgeist. For years we’ve heard people saying things like, ‘When are Muslims going to start making decent magazines, TV stations, films? Where are the Spielbergs of the Muslim world? Why can’t we get it together and make things just as well as what’s made in the West?’ And of course there’s the political gripe, which comes just as often (with a self-gratified sneer) from the Islamophobia corner, ‘Where are the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, the Mandelas of the Islamic world? Where are those voices that make the whole world stop and listen?’

The answer to the former question is one that is changing rapidly right now. Navid Akhtar, a regular documentary maker for the BBC, is currently looking for ‘founder members’ to subscribe to (i.e crowdfund) a wonderful digital TV platform called Alchemiya, clearly a cut above the rest in terms of production values, and with the ethos of presenting the most beautiful and fascinating content from the Muslim World today – as often as not emerging from among Western Muslims. People like Canadian-born film-maker Adam Shamash, whose recent video for Californian hip-hop artist and poet Baraka Blue’s song Love and Light was filmed in Fez and London, are upping the stakes with great passion and verve. (If you’re careful you might see me in that clip too…)

In the vanguard of any movement you’ll always find artists. Speaking plain truth and down-to-earth wisdom is the quiet but constant Peter Sanders, whose photography career started with the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix (he took the last shots of Jimi onstage before his death) and now meanders over the Islamic world capturing faces of saints and schoolkids, worlds inaccessible to the average blogger or newsreader.

Another Muslim Peter is that of the ever-dynamic Gould variety, whose Sydney-based design company pulls a lot of punches and whose Facebook page has over 100,000 followers. His Creative Ummah project, which is likewise looking for support at the moment on LaunchGood (another interesting Muslim enterprise), would create an online learning platform for everything from art to zoology (well, maybe the zoology is going a bit far), highlighting all the talent currently out there in the Muslim World.

And Yusuf
Islam
is back in the saddle with a new album, this time collaborating with an old friend from the Sufi 70s, Richard Thompson, and co-produced by Rick Rubin. One of few Muslim artists who have known serious limelight, Yusuf masterfully injects listenable, well-turned-out tunes with arresting philosophical thoughts.

You get the idea. I’d love to highlight all the Muslims currently putting immense efforts into raising the standards across the board, bringing beauty back into art and design (check out Lateefa Spiker, Iona Fournier-Tombs, Soraya Syed, and my very own dad for inspiring, bar-raising work) but there isn’t the space here and they might unfriend me for writing something embarrassing about them by accident. The point is that as the generations of Western Muslims move into second and even third, the production quality we expect is filtering down into the work we produce. No more cheap books printed in Lahore with text slipping off the page and spines that come undone after one reading.

My problem is that there’s something I quite like about the rubbishy productions we’re growing out of. Sure, the book-lover in me balks at poorly designed covers and pages so thin you can read the whole book just by holding it up to the light, but there’s something kind of honest about it nonetheless.

There is a tipping point at which content begins to be eclipsed by form. For many Muslims, this is exactly what we’re reacting against in the western sphere, an artistic and political stage in which looks mean everything, in which a US president can speak movingly about freedom and justice and the fight against terror while STILL not closing Guantanamo Bay, killing untold numbers of Pakistani and Syrian civilians using drones, or continuing to use cluster bombs even though they are known to kill children who think they’re toys.

We expect politics to be devious, but there has to be honesty in art or all is lost. I would much rather watch an Iranian film with poor film quality on YouTube for its awesome cinematography, brilliant script and effortlessly realistic acting than a Hollywood blockbuster in HD replete with clever jokes, jaw-dropping CGI effects and score sung by some chart-topping megababe. I suppose it’s the frustrated traveller in me that is riveted by ruins, prefers crummy worker’s restaurants with good eats over five-star places, and seeks out people selling food from trays on their head in the street to find out about the meaning of life.

The answer to the second question is not so dissimilar, either. Full marks if you’ve heard of Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless campaigns for women’s rights. Or Samira Saleh al-Nuaimi, an Iraqi lawyer and political activist who criticised ISIS aka Da’esh, on a Facebook page and was tortured and executed for it. (It did appear in a few newspapers, with some photo credits even spelling her name wrong). Meanwhile there are people like the affable Sudanese London-based Sheikh Babikir, who never ceases to preach peace and love and hugging trees, as well as thousands of other ‘good’ teachers with the same message; surely Abdallah Bin Bayyah’s plea for a ‘war on war for a peace upon peace’ is a quote worthy of Gandhi. But love and compassion doesn’t hit the news quite like a beheading.

The voices do exist: they just don’t have full make-up, excellent English and a retinue that keeps the red carpet rolling. ‘Neither did Gandhi or Martin Luther King’, you say. That’s true; but things have changed immeasurably since then. To make your voice heard now in the galaxy of user-generated content online, you have to drown everyone else out. You need a YouTube channel, a manager, a lawyer, a dozen advisers to keep your career on track, a personal trainer, some sort of bizarre diet involving immortality mushrooms, lots of famous friends who will invite you to their shows so you can be photographed there, and the expectation that you are worth it, dammit.

So while I applaud those people who are creating higher quality art and design, more functional websites, better translations, more beautiful gifts, and films to knock your socks off, I’d like to spare some time for the jumble sale rejects, the people with good hearts and great words whose suits aren’t snappy and whose colour schemes suck. May we never get so cool that we forget the dust and decay of the real world. In the great, metaphorical landscape of the internet, I’d rather be in downtown Zanzibar in a pair of flipflops eating a mango than shopping for Prada in a Dubai mall any day.

Man in Stone Town, Zanzibar, not eating a mango.

Man in Stone Town, Zanzibar, not eating a mango.

Three Translucent Fans

It might seem, from the digital distance of the internet, that the Cave has been pretty quiet of late. From this side of the screen, however, it’s been a time of intense internal activity, which I have cunningly disguised as laziness.

Various family crises, housing disasters, veterinary emergencies, bureaucratic worries and work woes combined into a whirling maelstrom of angst, which left me fairly convinced that if I’d gone to a doctor I would have been put on some strong medication. Thank God I had no health insurance and therefore didn’t have the choice.

 Big dog, big vet bills.

Thus a month of near-lunacy culminated in a trip up to Alqueria de Los Rosales, a conference centre complete with mosque (designed by my very own padre) and lodgings in a remote, starkly beautiful corner of the Granada province. The attraction was a retreat organised by my favourite fellow Cavepeople, Rumi’s Cave. Sheikh Babikir and Imam ‘Abdul-Lateef Finch were there to blast gibbering wrecks like myself back into shiny shape again through the medium of dhikr. By the time I left I felt free again, impervious to fear and stress; I felt like a ghoul whose hand had been constantly clutching at my throat had now been banished back to the underworld.

‘Adhkurni fa-adhkurkum’, so the Qur’an tells us: ‘Remember Me and I will remember you’. Pretty straightforward it would seem. It’s the antithesis of the current climate of ultra-distractability; you don’t need me to start listing websites – you know the prime culprits. Why are we suckers for it, when FB does such spectacularly insensitive acts as deliberately manipulating the positive or negative content of nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds in an experiment to see if they would post more negative or positive posts?

We citizens of the Internetic Republic are dimly aware of the way in which Flabberbook uses our self-created profiles to ‘teach’ advertisers how to market to us better, yet the entertainment value of a Friskies advert in which an older cat introduces the new kitten to the bad monster ‘Vac-cuum’ blots out our outrage, and we’re back to skimming through endless amounts of other peoples’ suggestions (some of which are so good that we keep going back again in the hopes of more). Horror at some story about kids in a refugee camp is swiftly replaced by cooing over a friend’s new baby. The margins of our emotional experience narrow; the world is siphoned into a stream of information that seems ever blander; the highs and lows are cycled through with an ever increasing numbness.

So remembrance – dhikr – works as a kind of unseen Fairy liquid on the congealed fat of our consciousness, biting through it to the clear Pyrex of our souls with unbeatable efficiency (do one get 70,000 rewards free!). You could term it mindfulness, too; either way you are retreating from the illusion on the periphery – of past and future, out there on the antipodes of our horizons – to the centre of the circle, to the present, to reality, that mind-bendingly beautiful Divine space.

Just before leaving for the Rumi’s Retreat, a friend, on hearing for the nth time my sorrows, simply said: ‘It’s just a reminder to stay present in your heart.’ A very Sufi statement one might say, or a New Age one; but labels don’t do justice to the sense of this approach. For a lot of us, it’s easier said than done, though. ‘How do I go back into my heart?!’ the mind wails, banging on the bars of the cage it built for itself. But it isn’t something that can be done mentally. Jabbering thoughts have to stop for a while for you to see that you don’t simply disappear off the map when you stop thinking, as Descartes must have imagined we did. 

Once you quiet the white noise of worry (or nostalgia, or mulling over negative thoughts, or just chattering away to yourself after having a coffee like my brain does), there’s the most exquisite expansiveness. There’s peace. There doesn’t have to be someone taking a selfie of them feeling peaceful – it’s just the peace, that’s all there is.

Poised on the brink of something big.

Poised on the brink of something big.

 

I was reminded of this deep, oceanic calm, and the phenomenally creative potential within in, when facilitating a poetry workshop at the Rumi’s retreat, together with Abbas Zahedi, head honcho of Rumi’s Cave in North London. There is so much to be said about literary form, information I don’t retain well and find myself itching to subvert at the next opportunity. Most classes that ‘teach’ poetry get stuck straight into spondees before you can say ‘iambic pentametre’.

But before the writing begins, there is a kind of pre-poetry that has to be found. It’s the same vast, unpredictable inner space that dhikr generates, that you experience in dreams, that becomes plain in meditation or prayer (at least, when you don’t have your kids hanging off you while you’re trying to pray). You don’t get there by memorising techniques or following arbitrary rules: every person has their own shortcut there, and they need to find their own way to it. (You can find some of my favourite writing prompts to get you off the diving board and into water here.)

It is always extraordinary to see people who regard themselves as beginners, as non-writers, dip their toes into these tremendous waters within, slowly build up confidence, and finally plunge their heads under, coming up with pearls. There is nothing like it for me, and the work produced is of an amazing quality: frank, curious, observant, wise.

Any old thing can be the springboard for this process, but you need confidence to know that it doesn’t matter what you come up with. Sometimes it’ll be nothing but an old boot, a baked bean can, a broken tile, a bicycle wheel, a bone. They’re all specimens of something surprising and somehow meaningful, in the way that dreams often sound like gibberish to anyone else but to the dreamer they tell a story.

Amazing what you might find down there.

Amazing what you might find down there.

And it’s surprising how good the the formal aspect of the writing often is, quite intuitively. But even if it isn’t, no matter. You can spend weeks planning out the design of a dress, but without the raw materials you’ll never get one made. To take another analogy, all the strongest tomato plants in my garden grew by themselves out of a well-tended compost heap. Give your subconscious some oxgyen and you’ll be astounded at what will come out of it

So these three lenses of my world have folded over one another like translucent fans, each one pointing in to the same message: come back to your centre. Anxiety and social media are just significantly more irksome variations on the lesson given by dhikr: come back to your centre. The glitter and drama of the world beyond is alluring but it’s a shimmering screen which dies the moment the plug is pulled on it. Come back! Come back to your core! Nothing else will ever seem so alive again.

I’ll be doing more workshops over the summer, kindling creativity all over the UK (details on workshops to come – stay tuned for more info). If you would like me to do one at your school, community centre or other venue please email me on medinatenourwhiteman (@) gmail (dot) com. Ramadan Kareem!

The Culture of My Category

It seems the Happy debate is still there, rankling like a pint of milk going mouldy at the back of the fridge. While the fiqh (jurisprudence) debate will probably go on and on forever, as there’s no definitive scriptural prohibition on music, it seems there is a kind of aesthetic irritation present whenever Muslims are seen doing something ‘western’.

Critics of the Happy British Muslims video often cite the fact that Muslims are ‘having to prove that they are human’ by the criteria of a largely white, western mediated hegemony. Apart from the fact that Pharrell Williams in not white, which undermines of whole argument (particularly as there are millions of black American Muslims, and millions more African Muslms), what we have here is a very sticky case of cultural appropiation.

When is it OK for a white person to sing dancehall music in Jamaican patois? Can Japanese women learn to dance flamenco? Are Americans crossing a line when they got o Russia to drink vodka? I’ve met plenty who do it very well. MY alma mater, SOAS, was famous for its ‘trustafarians’, white kids from wealthy backgrounds who liked to hang out with Baye Fall Sufis, wear ethnic clothing and bang on about imperialism with a reefer in their hand.

If you are a Western Muslim, a revert for instance, the situation gets slightly more complicated. It’s not just OK to adopt elements of a different culture, you’re actually kind of expected to. Your clothing isn;t complete without a hijab, kufi, item of jewellery with an Arabic inscription or garment with a ‘foreign’ look to it. Your English-sounding name will very likely be looked at with skepticism, prompting you to take on an Arabic one. Your choice of spouse will very likely reflect your outward-looking gaze, and then there’ll be endless obligatory visits to the other half’s homeland, not to mention intense efforts on the part of your new in-laws to instruct you in the ways of their country.

It is faintly amusing, actually, this nonsensical neurosis surrounding cultural appropriation, when you’re Anglo-American, white as a box of Daz, and have always been Muslim. I’ll listen to Hamza El Din, Celia Cruz or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan just as easily as I would the Isley Brothers, Yuna or Estrella Morente…but hold on a minute…none of them are white, Anglo-American, or Muslim! Am I allowed to like them? Or is it OK to listen to their music but not to sing their songs myself??

If I’m restricted to the culture of my category, then I’m going to end up listening only to my own music, as there really aren’t any others out there whose group I belong to. Not even Adele, who is about the only white British singer I can stand, and even so, I don’t own any of her music. Am I a self-hating Brit? Not really. Brits have always wanted to left this very tiny island and seek their fortunes around the world. That doesn’t take the Brit out of you, though. As much as I want to be true to my roots, this nationalistic pride drummed up by UKIP lunatics makes me reach for the sickbag. Surely there must be some other way of finding an authentic identity?

To me, part of the beauty of Islam is that is encourages us to transcend our boundaries, accept one another as members of a vast, international family that is made richer for its variations, but which is not stingy with them. Everywhere I’ve travelled in the Muslim world, people have expressed not only delight at my own pathetic efforts to absorb elements of their culture, but eager to learn about my own.

There is a kind of mutual admiration across the planet that finds its expression in cultural appropriation, but which has tap roots way down in love for humanity. Muslims who have received a western education, particularly one that emphasises anti-imperialist trends, have a slew of arguments sloshing around inside out heads itching to latch themselves onto this or that issue, and debate it into the ground. We over-think everything, being ourselves over-thought, over-scrutinised and over-noticed. It’s so hard to get back to a simple, intuitive approach to life, in which different cultures can be appreciated and absorbed without flagellating ourselves over it.

Without any further ado, watch this video and marvel at the Iranian-American cultural fusion. Argument over.

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The Loneliest Tearoom in India

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We left at nightfall
Delhi still ringing in my ears
the menacing rickshaw driver
the protective tuktuk driver
and now this bus, a pencil case
on wheels conducted by a man with
lips stained red with betel nut.
I sat at the front. I wore a loose headscarf
but how to mask the whiteness?
The woman beside me gladly made
sign language conversation for a while
til our vocabulary ran out.
All this time a man with a white
handlebar moustache was scrutinising me.
“Madame,” he said at last, “when you are asleep
you look like doll.”
I could not sleep much after that.
The turns, so thoughtfully marked
with yellow signs that wrung their hands
in big black letters:
“Always Alert Avoid Accident”…
“Someone at home wants you to return safe”…
while the betel in the driver’s blood
pressed the pedal into the floor
almost wearing a hole
turning the wheel with violent grace
and even though rocks tumbled down
into the glossy void over the edge
down in the Himalayan crooks
we could not see them land.
The wheels kept their footing.
My stomach, however, did not.
It slid about upon the vinyl seats
barely contained by my thin skin
wringing itself to squeeze out
that cheap thali I had wolfed
but when we stopped, blinking by moonlight,
the latrines seemed worse so
on we oscillated
round the mountain’s shoulders
road a snakeskin through the glacial dark
and at one moment someone asked me
“What’s your name, Madam?”
I answered honestly. They wondered
why? So I replied. They shrieked
with glee, or horror:
“She’s a Muslim?”
In between the wracking pains now
I was sobbing, still too teenaged to
admit the tears to strangers.
Finally two young men with
much more reasonable moustaches
offered me some herbs for stomach pains
and then a bidi, which I smoked out of
the back window. The others asked my pardon,
though I was not sure if this were
initiation into some strange
Indian social rite.
As dawn let colour flood back down
the mountains, trees emerged
a perpendicular gorge
a river cavorting at its feet.
We paused for breakfast and latrines.
This time I was not so particular.
The chai was good, the teacakes edible.
Steel cups; you must avoid the rims
for hygiene’s sake. Low knocked-together
wooden stools and tables. The loneliest tearoom
in India. We embarked again,
our destination Manali, town of hashish,
long-eared rabbits, dreadlocked Germans and
vast heights. But Manali, curious as it was,
never did shake off that bus trip.
Once we reached Leh
after four by four, trek, pony ride
and rooftop hitchhike
I did the journey back
by plane.

Clap Along If You Feel That Happiness is Halal

For anyone with a couple of dozen Muslims on their newsfeeds, any time some event of great importance breaks out somewhere in the Independent Republic of the Internet, you can guarantee that you’ll be exposed to a glimpse of that little-documented creature: the Muslim Troll.

Its natural habitat being under large rocks in urban vicinities, the Muslim Troll is a natural mimic of the Muslim Scholar, adopting a studious expression, self-consciously arranged ensemble of ‘Islamic’ clothing, and many Arabic expressions to pepper his speech. This he does whilst simultaneously eviscerating dozens of fellow Muslims online every day, condemning them to burn in the deepest reaches of hell for posting that video of the cat with the weird miaow.

Fortunately, I do not add suchlike to my friends. Were a Troll to scheme his way in I would promptly unfriendify him. Am I acting against freedom of speech? No, I am acting for freedom from speech. Hate(ful) speech, that is. There is no reasoning with people who say that it is disbelief to use a string of beads to enumerate the names of God, whilst reading Qur’an off their iPads and setting an alarm for Fajr on their iPhones.

So when The Honesty Policy’s effervescent vid Happy British Muslims (one of the global Pharrell Williams covers that have taken YouTube by storm) appeared on my Facebook feed, all that I could see in response was enthusiastic. Muslims of all colours, ages and styles of dress, bouncing around the screen in a state of pure unadulterated elation, without a single news reporter or crime scene in sight? What’s not to like?

Then I came across one woman’s impassioned comment about how ‘this isn’t the sort of da’wah we should be doing’. She seemed genuinely upset that despite all her efforts to maintain her deen (practice) the way she felt it should be, people like this kept on appearing to shatter her resolve. Her plea touched me deeply, but I couldn’t help wondering why something so infectiously cheerful should leave anyone feeling down.

Is the main problem that they’re bopping about to a Western pop song? If that is the case, then all of us who grew up in the West (or are 100% genetically one of ‘them’ – I even did a DNA test to see if I had any Asian, African or Middle Eastern in me; not a drop) are doomed. Much as I love to dance to Berber music or Qawwali, I like a good shimmy to Blondie as much as the next Essex girl. And frankly, most nasheeds are the musical equivalent of a large bag of candyfloss: nice for a while, but leaving you with a hankering for something a bit more substantial.

Music cuts across racial, religious, gender and class boundaries. You might not agree with people dancing for a camera and being broadcast to the world, but listen to a song that gets you jumping and the stress of being categorised falls away. You stop thinking, something that is anathema in our hyperelectric world. Besides, Muslim women often suffer from serious health problems as a result of having little encouragement – or opportunity – to exercise. Dancing is by far the best all-round tonic for the body; you don’t have to go raving to enjoy it.

(The only examples of belly dancers I could find that weren’t wearing exotic dancing gear. Take note of the irony, dear readers. Muslim Troll would be apopleptic.)

Is the issue the idea that we are pandering to Western ideals, trying too hard to prove ourselves by the criteria of ‘them on the other side’? Perhaps. As a minority that is often publicly maligned, we have a tendency to be touchy. British Muslims have a field of paranoia surrounding them, unless they are extremely careful about transcending it.

But we’ve been so immersed in ‘their’ culture, and for so long, where can you honestly draw the line where ‘we’ end’ and ‘they’ begin’? Many of us have no other place to call home than Europe, or the States. In any case, Islam didn’t emerge into a void; names, habits, even acts of worship (such as circumnambulating the Ka’aba) were carried over from before, wherever they were deemed appropriate. This supposed gulf between West and East is absurd: if you go far enough around the globe you come out the other side.

If Islam is as inclusive and atribal as we believe it to be, then being British or American, whether in heritage or culture, can be no barrier to belief.

If the worry is that women shouldn’t be filmed bouncing around on a screen, I can understand why people wouldn’t want to be captured personally and spliced into a video clip, and that out of respect for the privacy of women others might find it disagreeable that women should be shown on a website accessible to billions. But good golly, they’re hardly grinding the air in a leather bustier and thigh-high boots to the strains of some half-witted, semi-pornographic R’n’B tune. (Or shaking their tinselled butts to bellydancing music, for that matter.) Innocent, ebullient joy still exists; we need to be reminded of it before the skepticism sinks in too deep.

And innocent joy isn’t limited to certain groups of people. There is a lingering idea, I fear, that to be a ‘good’ Muslim one must look, speak, and behave a certain way, yet that gingerbread man shape seems to be shrinking all the time. Imam ‘Abdal-Latif Finch said something very powerful in a seminar he gave last summer: “Accepting Allah’s Will means accepting ourselves as we are.”

That doesn’t mean we don’t leave room for change, but it does mean recognising that this is our culture, this is our home, this is our vernacular. I feel that British Muslims have a pressing need to develop this sense of a home-grown Islamic identity, one that doesn’t require unrealistic expectations of piety or borrowing the trappings of foreign ‘Islams’.

Crowd of miscellaneous people listening to Firdaus Ensemble at South Kilburn Studos. Courtesy of Rumi's Cave

Audience at concert by Firdaus Ensemble at South Kilburn Studos, London. Courtesy of Rumi’s Cave

What’s wrong with us incorporating elements of our home cultures into our identities? Trying to squash yourself into a hopelessly ambitious mould of foreign-looking piety is a pretty sure guarantee of making yourselves feel like a failure, and might just end up with a massive, plate-smashing, snot-flying breakdown. Not very spiritual, unless you consider it a ‘breakthrough’.

I suspect that part of the objection that some people have to the Happy British Muslims video is that it expresses an aesthetic that doesn’t meet their ideals for an Islamic nation, rather than being a serious query of the piety of those involved. Sheikh ‘Abdal-Hakim Murad was in it, for goodness’ sake. If that doesn’t give it the seal of approval I don’t know what does.

“Abundance of worldly wealth is not happiness; real happiness lies in contentment of heart and a care-free nature.” (Hadith from the collection Sahih Muslim)

“The most beloved of religions according to Allah the Most High is the ‘easy, flexible religion.’” (Hadith from the collections Ahmad and Hasan)

“The best of all deeds is that you bring happiness to your Muslim brother, pay off his debt or feed him bread.” (Hadith from collection Ibn Adiyy and Hasan)

“O mankind, there has to come to you instruction from your Lord and healing for what is in the breasts and guidance and mercy for the believers. Say, ‘In the bounty of Allah and in His mercy – in that let them rejoice; it is better than what they accumulate.'”
(Surah Yunus, 10: 57-58)

So here goes…I’m HAPPY for the blessings of my children, my family, my husband, my friends…for the homes and jobs and projects that have fallen and continue to fall miraculously into my life, dispelling my fears and neurosis about provision and confirming the Divine statement “I am in the opinion of my slave”.

I’m HAPPY for all the flowers and leaves and healing materials that grow so bountifully within reach, for the needs that are met almost before they’ve been articulated, for the abundance that comes purely out of knowing from what Source they are emanating.

I’m HAPPY for the opportunities to learn that come with every challenge, for how beautifully choreographed they are, for how the discomfort lessens as the lesson behind it is revealed.

I’m so blimmin’ HAPPY these days I don’t know how I haven’t made a Happy video myself.

Tell me what makes you happy, too!

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/pharrell-williams-happy-british-muslims-dance-to-song-in-video-9265188.html