On the Boot of Ukraine

The standoff is startling
pale-faced, clean-shaven
as patient as snow
on the boot of Ukraine

Meanwhile, bones grow in babies
floors dirty themselves
muttered grumbles repeat
between broomstick and brain

Men are ranged in steep banks
as though cliffs ploughing on
to raise slow-cresting mountains
against foreign terrain

But at home, the plates sit
crusted with rice and cheese
the washing needs taking in
safely out of the rain

Whispered terrors of war
thread through emails and towns
ignite testosterone
fan a wildfire chain

But the people still pee
move their bowels most days
dead leaves, soap and hair
still encumber good drains

That momentous decision
of conflict or peace
raises all of our stakes
queries what is humane

Yet food and clean water
still need to be sought
foraged, stolen or bought
hunted, fished, caught and slain

Ambulances are readied
tanks and great submarines
great causes flush hot
in the president’s vein

While his mistress is ironing
silk slips that he gave,
asks the housewife next-door
what works best on wine stains

Rallied shouts float above roof-
tops: “Fight for your rights!”
though the war’s still a theory,
immanent the campaign

Housewives beat their rugs
water aubergine plants
beetles creep inside bottles
herds of goats block the lane

The diplomats clinch it:
troops retire to barracks
blank and brotherless for bread
and soup to soften pride’s pain

Cotton sheets heave and snap
tangled children’s hair is brushed
trumpets polished, glasses too
doors opened and closed
cats, dogs, rabbits fed
compost bins evacuated
trees and roses are still pruned
bowls of oranges arranged
the Names of God mentioned as stars
set into violet dawns
planets drift the way they always do
deaf to all of mankind’s bluffs

while here on earth the grass grows green
and green it will remain

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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.

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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?

To Dream, To Float, To Glorify

  This week I submitted a translation I have been working on for 5 months, of an Ibn ‘Arabi book on the 99 Names of God that had previously been translated into Spanish (I was translating it into English). It’s been a labour of love but also a “gift-laden carpet”* in many extraordinary ways.

This uy again.

This guy again.

  The most transformative part of the work, of course, was just going over the meanings of the 99 Names over and over again, discovering new nuances. It is astonishing how few of them are negative, in our understanding of the word (Al-Muntaqim – the Avenger – and Al-Darr – the Bringer of Harm – are the only two that spring to mind; al-Mumit, the Bringer of Death, doesn’t really count, as death can be the most beautiful release, depending on how much you want it).

  On the other hand, there are dozens of Names that relate to generosity, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness: Al-Rahman (The All-Compassionate), Al-Rahim (The All-Merciful), Al-Ghafar, Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar (variations on the Most Forgiving), At-Tawwab (He who turns towards the one turning towards Him), Al-Sattar (He who conceals faults), Al-Karim (The Generous), Al-Jawad (He Who gives before being asked), Al-Halim (The Mild), Al-Wasi’ (The All-Embracing, as in the Qur’anic verse “His mercy embraces all things”), al-Wali (The Protecting Friend), Al-Wadud (The Loving), Al-Wahhab (in contrast to the religious conservatives who have taken on this name, it means The Giving)…

  I shouldn’t be so surprised, but the impression that one often gets of Islam is that it encourages fear of God, fear of hell, fear of a patriarchal system that is supposed to order every aspect of our lives. But the reality, when you pull those appearances apart, is quite the opposite. It’s enough to melt a heart frozen stiff with fear.

  Even though I’ve been Muslim all my life, or perhaps precisely because of that, I have so often found it easy to slip into assumptions about what a Muslim life is like. There always needs to be a balance between the intellectual, the ethical, the practical and the aesthetic. What often happens is that one or more of these is neglected; our faith limps along cock-eyed, developing achy joints as a result of its poor coordination.

  And then we innocently go to the nearest, quickest reference points to seek out an uplifting hadith, quote, du’a or bit of history: Sheikh Google, his wife Binti YouTube and their hyperactive son, Ibn Facebook. Apart from those things that are posted by friends, whose intentions we know well enough to trust, we emerge from these virtual encounters riddled with gunshot wounds inflicted by different doctrinal angles, and shell-shocked at the bigoted, insulting, or downright stupid ideas (not to mention actions) of some Muslims.

  I think it was because of my need for something that really went deep that this book landed on my table. Ibn A. seems to have a knack for explaining even the most intricate existential problems (such as the existence of evil – he says that transgressions, being brought into existence by God, ask forgiveness from Him on behalf of the place where they are carried out – that is, in the person doing them). Some of these issues have dogged me for years; no-one else has put them straight for me satisfactorily. My intellectual side can be dragged out of the closet and de-mothballed at last, to rejoin my daily wardrobe of selves.

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi's works - which numbered about 200

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi’s works – which numbered about 200

  One of the things that has hooked me most is his etymology. Sufism has a long tradition of finding correlations between words with the same letters in a different order – hence the link between ‘to do, act’ (عمل) and ‘to know’ (علم), i.e. don’t act without knowledge; or words whose graphics are the same when the vowels are not written – such as عالم, which can mean ‘knower’ (‘alim) or ‘cosmos’ (‘alam); or words whose letters themselves (each one of which has not only a numerical value associated with it but also meanings of their own, such as ʿayn, which means the letter ع, eye, spring or source) provide them with other shades of meaning: so, you could say, عدم, meaning ‘non-existence’, is differentiated from ادم, Adam, by the ‘ayn that is his eye (and thus his all-important witnessing) and the Source that brought him into being.

    Everything in existence is, by Sufi logic, a sign of Allāh – including, of course, ourselves – so nothing is coincidental. All things and beings, events and non-events, are alive with meaning. Because Arabic evolved as a language for the purpose of receiving divine revelation, all of these little correlations are clues left for the careful observer to trip over, their faces lighting up with glee at what a gem was left lying around for anyone to find.

  One of these correlations dawned on me the other night, late, when my brain had slipped out of analytical, left-brain mode and into that dream-like, perceptive state usually populated (in my brain, at this hour) by complete gibberish.

  It was this: the verb سبح, which in form I means ‘to swim, to float’ and hence ‘to transcend’, and which in form II is translated as ‘to glorify, exalt, extol’ (as in the expression ‘سبحان الله’, translated as ‘Transcendent is Allāh’ or ‘Exalted is Allāh’), combines these two nuances for a very good reason.

  When we utter (or feel) the phrase ‘subḥān’Allāh’ – on seeing something extraordinary or astonishing, or realising something that inspires awe in us, or simply when recognising the incredible beauty, harmony, or logic of something – not only do we extol Allāh, but we transcend the mundane hamster-wheel of negativity that we wade through in our daily lives ourselves.

  So, while these clever little connections leap out at the word nerd and light them up like a Christmas tree, in fact everything has the ability to have that effect if we only paid enough attention to it – or, perhaps, the right kind of attention.

lenticular clouds, orgiva

  Which leads me to another little light-bulb that blinked on this week: that in order to become a friend of God (the term used in Arabic to mean a saint), perhaps what’s needed is to treat everything as a friend – loved ones, strangers, all creatures, nature, water, time, space… – because it all exists in and because of Divine Reality. It’s easy to make a big show of religion, to wear pious-looking gear and be kind to the poor and needy, and then snap at a child because they their need for breakfast does not coincide with my desire to get up and make it. What do you mean that’s not universal?

  Several of the Companions mentioned that they never saw anything but that they saw Allah in, behind, or with it. And a famous Sufi training story tells how a fish went swimming through the ocean, asking everyone where the water was. I might only taste a drop of it of this ocean, but it leaves me realising how thirsty I am for it.

*An aphorism of the Shadhili Sufi master Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari reads: “States of need are like gift-laden carpets”. See also my previous post Song for the Crocodiles.

The Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms

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Oxford Botanical Gardens. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

  Autumn encroaches. In tiny increments it pulls its covers up higher each night; dusk always seems to surprise us, as if it really oughtn’t be doing that.
  Nostalgia for summer tapers every conversation, string vests and grown-up blonde dashes clung to in the hope that warmth really will return. It’s as though we haven’t lived through this every year of our lives, that as far as we have heard, as far back as our genetic memory serves, this is something new and vaguely frightening.
  Lanterns are lit, ghouls shooed away with rituals that keep their attraction. And the gravity that follows the upward throw of any dense object brings it crashing down towards us, unprepared and flapping our hands.
  Perhaps other people deal better with autumn than me. Reading a book on Biodynamic gardening, I was reminded of how obvious these things should be – if, that is, any of us spent long enough in the elements to remember that this downward pull is only the other side of the cycle that everything turns. The moon waxes, shines, wanes, disappears. The waters in us and every other moving thing rise tidally towards it, dropping back when its magnetic allure fades.

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  This month, the triply descending cycle of autumn, new moon and (squeamish men look away now) an unusually well-timed period brought it all home to me. I could almost feel myself being lowered into my grave. I felt profoundly sad, a feeling I am rarely overwhelmed by, being more partial to the natural highs of laughter, growing things, creativity.
  But I cannot describe how much I valued feeling so low. I had the distinct sense that it was a kind of preparation for death.
  The day after descending into my grave, so to speak, I went to a Red Tent evening at a friend’s house – well, yurt. (Don’t tell me you didn’t realise I was such a hippy.) After the usual hugs and teas and catching up, we went straight into the heavy stuff: menopause and death.
  As one woman, a nurse, pointed out, we Brits do death very badly. We prefer not to think about the finality of our earthly lives, concentrating on practical matters – healthcare, wills and testaments, inheritances (those enticing burdens that make a relative’s death seem confusingly attractive). We do the usual British thing of not wanting to cause a fuss, to go and hide somewhere with our grumbles and get out from under other peoples’ feet. So the elderly get packed away in homes, anaesthetised to numb them to their mortal process. Is it more to ease their suffer or to protect us from the sight of someone going, fully aware?
  Spain is so different. Elderly parents, dotty and deaf as they come, are dutifully cared for by grown-up sons or daughters, taken out to events slowly on unsteady, slippered feet, forgiven for wandering off and falling asleep in strange people’s cars. This is the comedown after a lifetime of general good health, of being in service to other people: it’s an expectation that is becoming harder to honour as the grip of the Northern European work fetish tightens.

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  As my biodynamic gardening book maintained, winter is a time when the garden appears to be dead, but there is just as much going on beneath the surface as there is above it during the rest of the year. Life is dispersed among millions of micro-organisms, microfungi, worms; more than that, there is a quiet in this temporary fallow period that is an essential antidote to the activity and production of the rest of the year.
  I like being around old people. They offer the long view, neutralising my anxiety about getting to where I want to be quicker (in that self-defeating tizz of wanting to be somewhere than isn’t the present moment).
  If I live to be 80 (God willing), I’m less than halfway into my time here. What does it matter than I don’t have my book of poetry (self-)published yet, my novel finished, my album recorded? Let alone the deserts I would regreen if I had the chance, the disadvantaged youth I’d educate, the single mothers I’d support with all the millions of pounds I would have if any of those projects miraculously became huge successes. (Ha ha.)
  I find I can end up turning from one goal to another with such dizzying speed, and always with the same urgency, that I drive myself closer to the ground – which is probably right where I’m needing to be.
  Just as wholistic health looks at the wellbeing of the body rather than treating symptoms, and permaculture (or biodynamics) says “Look after the soil and the soil will look after you”, the soul needs lowness – not only to remember how beautiful it is to be high, but for the value of lying fallow and being nothing.
 And the moon is generous when she returns: when we can see the dark lacuna of the ‘old moon’ beside the glowing curve of crescent, it’s known as ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms’.

 

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(If all that sounds too depressing, follow this link for things to grow through winter: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/vegetables-grow-winter-how-guide.)

School: The Ultimate Desert Island

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  Another teenager ends her life after being bullied relentlessly by schoolmates, both in person and online. The heartrending story of Izzy Dix’s suicide, told by her mother – a single mum, for whom Izzy was her only child – has hit me at a particularly emotional moment: my kids are away and the house is thunderingly silent. God only knows how Izzy’s mother is coping with her solitude.
  And it makes me wonder – not for the first time – what the deal is with education. What good is a school if it teaches kids how to regurgitate facts for exams, which they will certainly have forgotten two weeks after finishing school, and yet is so blinkered to the facts before its eyes that it cannot see when a child is teetering on the edge?
  What, more to the point, are they teaching their students about social responsibility, ethics, compassion? At times it looks more like the mechanical imprinting of information than the careful nurturing that a bunch of insecure adolescents need.
  After blogging about my trepidation in taking Caveboy to state school, concluding that it wouldn’t harm him since, comparatively, we live in a beautiful, open, natural wonderland, by the end of term he’d come down with double pneumonia and ended up in hospital on an antibiotic drip for three days. (He did fine with treatment, thank God, and even went to the UK for Christmas).
  But he was still not back to peak health by the beginning of the spring term, so I took the executive decision to keep him out of school. It was only Infant’s, in any case, and therefore not obligatory, though if you don’t take up the offer of free state education most Spanish people look at you like one of those creepy mums who tell their kids that everyone is evil and probably still breastfeed their teenagers.
  Since I had to organise a babysitter to look after my daughter (then nearly three), I got together with two other mums and we had a babysitter-share at my house, three mornings a week. It worked a treat. There’s lots of space to play here, lots of sunshine to be out in, trees to climb, kittens, toys, craft materials…I think I can safely say they had a ball.

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  I was, meanwhile, optimistically planning a home school co-op for the following year. I could teach music! I thought. And poetry! And history! We could do whole theatre productions! And make up group stories! And plant things! If, that is, I could generate the extra six hours a day I needed to get everything else done…
  Thank heavens, then, that someone else did know that particular conjuring trick. Two wonderful friends got together and had a wooden cabin built in an olive and orange grove, filled it with Montessori equipment, kitted out a patio to the side with art things, and set up a Montessori-inspired playschool.

  Three days a week, too – the magic number I figured would work best with my kids, so I’d still get enough time to see them and be able to juggle all my other projects.
  It seems that in the two years since their dad and I split up, I’ve felt less like I needed my own space and more like I want to relish my time with my children. Partly that’s because they are growing older and more able to potter around with paints and playthings, without leaping on my back and pulling my hair or wailing over something inexplicable every five minutes.   
  And partly it’s that they go to their dad’s for days or even weeks at a time, and I realise that the house really isn’t so much fun without them in it. I don’t really inhabit it when I’m on my own here; I barely cook, which means the washing up pile is slow to accumulate, and the same could be said for the laundry too…which might sound like every housewife’s dream, but in a strange way, I appreciate these little daily tentpegs that moor my restless mind into something tangible and satisfying to finish.
  So the idea that next year Caveboy will be starting primary school leaves me feeling quite bereft. Before I know it he’ll be doing after school activities, going to friends’ to lunch, or having to contend with the increasing amount of homework that kids are being set – often, it seems, by blockheaded teachers who make them repeat the same inane tasks over and over, until all love of learning has been thoroughly stamped out of their tender heads.

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  Learning, I believe, is something that any child who has been encouraged to do so from an early age will do quite instinctively. And once they can read for themselves, the pedagogical world is their oyster. Some of the best read people I’ve met have not gone to school.
  “But it’s the social thing!” anti-homeschoolers rant. And they’re right: there are those kids whose parents, in their earnest wish not to see their kids being bullied, end up stymying their children’s own ability to work things out for themselves.
  However, it’s an argument that is just as valid in many schools, especially large, impersonal schools in which kids like Izzy Dix can fall through the net. Izzy had moved back to the UK from Australia two years before she died. She came into a high school eager to make friends, but instead found nothing but cliques with their backs turned to her, firing bitchy comments from behind their battlements to keep the stranger at bay.
  It makes me want to work hard to keep this Montessori project flourishing through to primary. Not just because the kids seem happy, interested, relaxed, engaged, alive, but because they would be fortified on all sides by a society they understand, people they know, kids whose parents meet and chat and laugh together in the street. I wonder if this isn’t really the secret ingredient to a successful school ingredient – the wider society being something that children do well to mirror.

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  I went to a state school, quite large (1500 at the time, and it’s grown a lot since I left). It was competitive; we had dozens of sports teams and dance shows and charity performances; people talked about Oxbridge at Sixth Form.
  But my parents had nothing to do with anyone from this microcosm of society, except on Parent’s Evening. There was not much point me telling them about things that happened to so-and-so; they didn’t know who they were. We were relative hermits, bookworms inhabiting a miniature classical Islamic library, or making music to ourselves. We had our own friends, other Sufis who’d come to our house to sing and do dhikr (the remembrance of God) together. We made sense among ourselves.
  Nobody from my school would have understood us. I know why my parents didn’t want to hang out with other parents; our lives ran on different runners. We didn’t drink alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant. We didn’t watch EastEnders. We didn’t take much of an interest in the usual English things (house prices, football, Jonathon Ross). The weather was about the only thing that affected us equally as our neighbours.

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That, of course, and our sense of humour.

  But growing up in this bisected way, with one outer life and another inner, was not much fun. I developed a hard shell to deal with everyday England that took many years of difficult work to emerge from. My interaction with people was premeditated, edited, cautious. Nobody got the full picture, which perhaps is what made me turn to writing and music with such passion.
  So in the imaginary schools of my children’s future, I hope I will always be there, brandishing trays of prawn blinis at every event, enthusiastically welcoming other parents and insisting on being their acquaintance, not just for the sake of appearances but so that my kids won’t feel that I am deserting them on a strange island every time I leave them off at the school gates.
  I intend to make it plain who I am, without shame, without fear of judgment, since if you have no shame about your real self, there is nowhere for any hater to pin their hate onto you. It’s as if you have become a transparent ball of light, melting their needles whenever they get close. And if you carry baggage around, writhing with embarrassing secrets, you can be sure that someone, bully or snark or spineless invertebrate, will take pleasure in opening them for you.
  Don’t let your light be barnacled by self-doubt. You are every bit as awesome as you wish you were. And you always have been.

The Daring Pearl Diver

Sun bubbles

  Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
  I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
  Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
  I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
  But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
  Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
  If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
  So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
 And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
  Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
  But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
  In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
  It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
  And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
  But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
  There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
 Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
  It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
  But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.

The Daring Pearl Diver

Sun bubbles

  Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
  I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
  Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
  I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
  But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
  Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
  If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
  So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
 And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
  Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
  But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
  In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
  It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
  And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
  But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
  There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
 Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
  It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
  But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.

The Daring Pearl Diver

Sun bubbles

  Why do we write? Why do we make music? Why do we create art?
  I’ve been rolling these ideas around in the marble maze of my brain for some time now. There are various ‘things’ I ‘do’ (excepting the usual things, eating, drinking, doing dishes…). I’m referring to the things that I present to the world as products, effects, that are unique to me. Poetry, short stories, blogs posts, the odd article, translations, making clothes, geometry or painting when I get the chance…I seem to cycle through them one by one, with breaks for everyday activities and to tend my vegetable garden.
  Part of me wonders if, in order to be considered a ‘proper’, professional writer, I should be sitting down at the computer for eight hours a day, clocking in and off as though I had a boss looming overhead with time-sheets clutched in his thunderous fist, the way I imagine ‘real’ writers (I mean, people who have publishers looming over them in a similar way) have to do.
  I don’t know if it’s something I can blame on my womanhood, and the cyclical nature inherent in that, or being a mother, and the similar cycles of washing, hanging out to dry, collecting in and getting things dirty again that it involves.
Certainly there are days that seem to spin past in identical form, and my life appears to be a hamster wheel in which I am racing forward on the scent of a biscuit but never really going anywhere.
  But then, the reality of sitting down at a computer and typing for long hours every day, as I’m currently doing for a translation job, is not really that fun – other than the enjoyment of the work itself.
  Your shoulders get tense and knotty, you neck gets stiff, your eyes itch, your back aches, your legs seem to vanish from your consciousness, you get terribly cold as your circulation stagnates…it’s as though the body is kept in a battery chicken cage during those interminable working hours.
  If you were to do the same kind of static, limited movements for that many hours a day in any other job, let’s say, making coffee in a café, you’d get Repetitive Strain Injury and be able to sue your employer. (Where’s that boss with the thunderous fists when you need him?)
  So moving from one art to another, using different muscles, and meanwhile letting ideas mature in the back of the brain is not such a bad proposition. It fleshes out the limited nature of the job in a physical sense, makes it somehow synesthetic. Flashes of the other activities appear in the writing – the tactile sense of cloth in The Peace It Pivots On, the catharsis of pulling out weeds in Vetch, and so on.
 And, not least, the interactions that occur with other people in the course of doing other things inevitably enrich a writer’s work. How do you have anything to write about if you are locked in an office all day? Can’t we count a trip to the beach as research? Everything we do as writers is research. If you aren’t careful you end up writing stories about people writing stories – the literary equivalent of pulling lint out of your bellybutton and parading it as life.
  Which brings me back to my first questions. Why are we writing? To move the furniture of our subconscious around? Or are we focussing on what we get from our readers, the likes on Facebook, the comments, the shares? I have to confess to a sneaky desire to see all these things increment. I don’t know if I’d share them if the desire wasn’t there.
  But it makes me wonder why I am writing, then. If I only do what I do in order to receive praise, I’m back on that hamster wheel, salivating at the thought of the biscuit but never really being satisfied by it.
  In fact, whenever we do anything because we get some pleasure out of it – which inevitably only gives us that rush of pleasure temporarily, and then leaves us with a cold, dark hole in our chests and the need to go back and get more – we are basically courting addiction. It can be drugs, porn, chocolate, shopping, or it can be something subtler, like praise. It’s the celebrity’s Achilles heel.
  It’s also one of those habits of parenthood that we get chided for in parenting books. Encouraging a child to do something because we’ll give them a sweet for it won’t teach them to do it for it’s own sake (which is the really crucial question). You are effectively training a dog to do tricks for a snack.
  And we aren’t dogs. We have drives and needs that go way beyond anything we associate with animals – at least, as far as we can tell. Sure, a pet dog likes being stroked and tickled too – but it would bite you if it was living in the wild. We domesticate animals by yoking them with this stimulus-reward cycle. They never really grow up, and we love them for their childishness.
  But why do we write, then? Or make music, or art, or do anything?
  There are hormonal reactions that occur when the reward centre of the brain is prodded. The reactions rise and fall. There is another place that produces hormones, and feelings of pleasure (not that place…): I mean the heart. When you plunge into it, it opens out all round into an infinite sunlit ocean, rays streaming down in sparkling filaments that wave and point towards the depths.
 Here anything is possible, and everything is done for a different sake, since there is no mirror to bounce our actions off, no Other to reward us with sweets or biscuits or a virtual like. This is not us at all. This is where our best art emerges from, gestating in this endless, gravityless space in which the drop – that tiny fractal of the ocean – is merged with the whole.
  It takes a while to slip into this place, to get adjusted to the temperature of the water, to take the deepest breath possible and dare to go under. And it’s only when I’ve found a pearl and brought it up for the world to see that the mirrors start appearing again. If I see that pearl reflected in them, multiplying my admiration for it in the multiples that are reflected back at me, that’s one thing. But inevitably there’s the praise (or criticism) that comes with it too. That’s when I wonder why I am doing it, and if I shouldn’t hold that pearl as close to me as I can, forever.
  But then it never gets to be multiplied in the kaleidoscope of people’s reactions. The really daring pearl diver knows that finding the pearl is not the hardest part.

Muslim Things: Surprisingly Not Scary

  It’s impossible not to notice them. They appear in social network newsfeeds, they appear in the news, in the comments on the news, in conversations overhead on café terraces. At times you can almost see them being thought.
  They are the fears that flit across the minds of anyone who has ever come into contact with a Muslim. Or, more potently, who has ever read the word without ever having met a Muslim. The word has taken on a shape-shifting life of its own, at times monstruous and shadowy, at others defiant and political; the silhouette of it morphs on the screen, taking on the prickly subjects around it and shuffling forward under the burden of their horrors.
  And yet at other times, and sometimes even more intensely on Facebook than anywhere else, it is a key to a vast wonderland of commonalities, of shared loves and expansions, of the imagined song of a nightingale pondering how to attain the rose, of the sorrow of separation into individual bodies when the spirit longs for union again, of the thunder that joy makes in the heart when this long-for proximity is felt. All of this depends on the projections of the thinker, on the bed the word receives in their brain.
  However it beds down in yours, it is never a neutral name. It does not inspire visions of light-hearted, frolicsome, or jovial people, skipping happily through life.
  In the spirit of addressing the imbalance of contexts in which the word ‘Muslim’ appears (take, for instance, ‘Muslim Rage’, ‘Muslim patriarchal values’, ‘Muslim traditions’…) I would like to suggest a few new nomenclatures.
  How about ‘Muslim Badminton?’
  Or ‘Muslim Knitting’?
  Or ‘Muslim Strawberry Farms’?
  We could really go to town here, in our invented, happy-go-lucky Muslim world, where there are no issues surrounding us like swathes of barbed wire, and we are generally pootling along, enjoying life. (Feel free to add your own Muslim Things in the comments!)
  How about…

  ‘Muslim Surfing’
  ‘Muslim Theatre’
  ‘Muslim Fudge’
  ‘Muslim Upcycling’
  ‘Muslim Capoeira’
  ‘Muslim Bake-Sales’
  ‘Muslim Poetry Slams’
  ‘Muslim Silversmithing’
  ‘Muslim Face-painting’
  ‘Muslim Nurseries’
  ‘Muslim Permaculture’
  ‘Muslim Neo-Choirs’
  ‘Muslim Jam Sessions’
  ‘Muslim Skating’
  ‘Muslim Hiking Clubs’
  ‘Muslim Soup Kitchens’
  ‘Muslims Holding Hands at the Movies’

  It is curious how often even I expected myself to write something involving a revolution, repressive regime or Scud missile.
  How inculcated a sense of a word becomes; I would like to do as gay people did when they inverted the sense of the word Queer and made it something they could be proud of.
  In a way, the analogy is not so off the wall. If you were to round up all the gay people in the world, you’d be sure to find a decent dose of substance abusers, HIV positives, sociopaths, and worse in there somewhere. Despite this being so, the truth is that no one gay person can be called upon to answer for all of that. Virtually every gay person I’ve ever met seemed quite serious, domestically minded, and, well, pretty normal.
  So it is for Muslims. Much to the annoyance of journalists, for whom it shreds the simple notions they rely upon to explain us from arm’s length, there is no such thing as a ‘Muslim community’. This hysterically funny satire shows how absurd the idea of a ‘black community’ sounds if it were to be turned on its head.
  If you don’t happen to spend a decent amount of time among Muslims – and that probably accounts for a good number of Muslims themselves, who are equally vulnerable to casting aspersions over themselves after a good hammering by the news – let me tell you that I know Muslims, or know of Muslims, who happily fall into the above categories, and many more innocent, unscary others besides.
  I personally know Muslim midwives and doulas, herbalists, doctors, healers, singers (female too – myself included), musicians, painters, gravestone-carvers, poets, gardeners, Montessori teachers, Steiner teachers, state school teachers, civil servants, journalists, avid PG Wodehouse fans, filmmakers, photographers, nerds, programmers, adrenaline junkies, mountain-climbers…Sometimes they are inspired, driven by a sense of joy so powerful in them that they cannot but do their art, sport, game, craft, or whatever it is, lest they implode with the excitement.
  It seems peculiar to associate any of these ordinary, or extraordinary activities with being a Muslim, but are they any less relevant than a different kind of Muslim’s penchant for throwing stones at tanks, or issuing prohibitions on women revealing their ankles, or shouting ‘Death to America’? How much is each of them contingent upon the time, the context, the education of the person, the influences they are subject to, or the unfathomable movements of the human mind?
  We are, at our least divided, only human beings. Separating a person’s identity from their freedom to behave like a twit is the first step to viewing them as a human being. Otherwise, we owe what we do to our colour, religion, nationality, immigration status, gender, sexuality, or any other label we have invented for the sole purpose of separating others from ourselves and scattering them into a hierarchy whose apex is us. In this ugly scheme where everything is blamed on the umbrella of identity over our heads, none of us can ever break out of the crust built up of our errors and start over.
  So, dear readers, I shall now desist from my Muslim typing, since my Muslim fingers are tired, and my Muslim glasses smudged with unidentified Muslim splodges. My Muslim ideas have run to a standstill. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall have some Muslim Fun with my kids, playing Muslim Football and doing some Muslim Weeding in my Muslim veggie plot. But for now, I shall brush my Muslim teeth, go to Muslim sleep and, I hope, have a few Muslim dreams.

Women’s Rights in Islam? Start walking the walk

I am reblogging this in its entirety from a beautiful blog called MinaretMuse as it’s such a valuable thing for anyone, non-Muslim and Muslim, to hear – and especially to act upon. We’re all lost if we keep talking, learning, accumulating information and then neglect to act upon any of it. We’ll drown in an ocean of binary code if we don’t learn how to swim in it.

Salams and Juma’ Mubarak,


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZG6ibK8mwo

I could say a lot about this video – that I’ve been waiting for someone like him to say something like this for longer than I care to recall. That it’s an overdue wake-up call to the Ummah, especially those of us in the West…but I’ll let the Shaykh do the talking.

The video is only 13 minutes long and it starts with an appeal on behalf of a destitute woman. Shaykh Habib Ali al Jifri then reacts to what he hears, and tells it like it is.

“To the men, especially those who are religious – before looking right and left, look at yourself. How do you view women? Your night prayers, your daily fasts, your memorization of scripture, your charity, your pilgrimage, your knowledge and your teaching, your struggles for the sake of God – everything you do – won’t get you to a point where you are something before God if you don’t let all of that pass through the gateway of benevolence to women.”

May Allah grant us the tawfeeq to stop talking and walk the walk. May we establish justice within our communities before we are held to account for it on the Day of Judgement. Ameen.

If you can’t watch the video, the jist of his speech was posted online by Fareena Alam and I’ve cut and pasted it below.

“For the woman under the Sharia, it is a communal obligation to look after her. If none of us do it, then we’re all sinning. And it isn’t a favour to her; it is an obligation for us. Not because we pity her, not because we owe her something — IT IS HER RIGHT. That is not the only issue. We have to work seriously to end problems like this. We have to treat this problem. We can’t stop talking about the future of Muslim society here, and our rights, and the problems between the conservatives and this one, and so on. We’re talking about building a Muslim society…. what we’re talking about will all come to, and forgive me for saying so, worse than meaningless. A waste. All of that talk, building the community, rousing the Muslims, having a future for Islam. It is all rubbish, all a waste of time, if we’re not serious if we don’t raise awareness and do something to stop the injustices being done against the mother’s in our societies.
“To the men, especially those who are religious – before looking right and left, look at yourself. How do you view women? Your night prayers, your daily fasts, your memorization of scripture, your charity, your pilgrimage, your knowledge and your teaching, your struggles for the sake of God – everything you do – won’t get you to a point where you are something before God if you don’t let all of that pass through the gateway of benevolence to women.These aren’t the words of human rights activists – the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said that ‘the best of you of is the best to his family. And I am the best to my family.’ The Prophet made the measure of goodness in this life, tied to your goodness to women.There are people who still teach things that are falsehoods that they brought with them from their home cultures – where they treat a woman like she is just a commodity. We have to stop running away from the reality of our problems. There are Muslim women being raped inside their homes. There are Muslim women being raped by their relatives. And it looks like the mistreatment is changing from isolated cases to a phenomenon. Is this true or not?But our communities try to run away from these problems. They hide their heads in the sand. And when a woman speaks out to demand her rights, she is silenced. When the scholar in the mosque finds himself in a position where he cannot actually do anything to stop what is happening to her, she goes to the courts to get her rights – and the community looks at her like she is betraying them. Is this true or not?

…And so the victim becomes the criminal. And the person who gives the stamp of approval is a scholar of faith? Why then would we find it strange that a generation would come out that would leave the faith? Why do you find it strange when a Muslim woman goes to get her rights from other organizations? You haven’t given her any protection. You haven’t given her dignity. You haven’t given her respect. And you want her to carry on accepting this? And the biggest crime is that you justify this, saying that it is the command of God?

If the Muslim community doesn’t take serious steps – starting from the mosque before anywhere else – in executing God’s command and the advice of the Prophet, in giving women their rights – if that is neglected and overlooked, if people do not want to acknowledge it and treat this malady, people will stand in God’s presence on Judgment Day and God will judge them not just for them, but he will judge them for the generation that has lost faith because of them.

Enough of this talk about Islam giving women their rights and freeing women – yes, Islam did that, but the question is not whether Islam did that or not, the question is why we are not implementing faith in that regard. Why is it just left to sermons or as a means of self-defence in the media, against those who criticize us from rights organizations?

Oh scholar, put yourself in the shoes of the girl who is abused. When she comes running to you, you only speak in defence of Islam and what it says about the rights of women. But when she goes to the rights organizations, she finds that they are defending her. So who do you think she’ll turn to?

I’m sorry for the long sermon, but after what I heard from the sister, I cannot be quiet about this. The wound has become septic, and it needs to be opened and cleaned. And we want you, the women, to start with that.

I want to see women’s rights activists who are Islamic jurists, and who understand the law. They’ll stand and they’ll take their rights, with the command of God and of His Prophet.”

(Apologies for not knowing how to embed the video – anyone who can advise I would be very grateful to learn – and act on it!)