West is Not a Direction

Map on gazelle skin dated 1513 CE by Turkish navigator Piri Reis

Map on gazelle skin dated 1513 CE by Turkish navigator Piri Reis

West is not a direction

It’s a
limo on a
dirty Bombay street
an architecture masters
from the university of Madrid
hanging on a wall in Tehran
it’s a pizza on a plate in Cairo
an iPhone in a hand in São Paolo
a book by Sartre on a shelf in Phuket
a magician on a talent show
being watched on YouTube in Pakistan

It’s a breeze block in the wall of a house in Nairobi
an engineered seed in a sack in the Congo
a factory for dish scrubbers in China
a boat stuffed with young women sewing shirts
a van with a Moroccan man clinging underneath
a Khoi-San bushman longing for his homeland
from a high-rise in Johannesburg
a black woman in Nigeria bleaching her skin
burning her scalp to make her hair straight

It’s a million bake sales and sponsored skydives
Afghan orphans adopted by never-seen donors
a sign saying ‘Don’t be Silly’ at an anti-fascism rally
vans full of mens’ running shoes being driven to Calais
curses muttered at the £9m concrete wall they pass
It’s a 19-year-old activist being crushed under a tank in Tel Aviv
A London boy barefoot in the Amazon seeking
Wisdom from painted shamans
The tents we designed for refugees fleeing
Missiles we made and sold

It’s a ninety-year old English man who dies of cold in winter
because he can’t afford the heating bills
It’s a Spanish woman in a red dressing gown
And shiny peach lipstick wearing dirty crocs
walking her dog
It’s a young woman fighting to be free of a husband
who tells her “You’ll starve to death without me”

It’s an ice floe in Norway creaking downhill unseen

An Ann Summers party among suburban housewives
and a nun on a Soho street ladling out soup

It’s a pool of mercury on whose silver palm
The sky is distortedly clear
Whose glistening promises burn with their cold
If you ever get close enough to touch it
And it sends drops of itself scattering
Trying to reach the bamboo forests
And the warm red soil
And the forgiving ocean
To forget their nature and reflect
Some truer texture
But we are always an emulsion
We don’t dissolve

West is hope
And vanity
And frustrated ambition

You might drown trying to reach it
or get dizzy trying to avoid it
because it’s east and south and north
It’s in a private school in Rabat
while the spirituality you seek is back home
in a quiet town in Europe
where there is enough abundance to let go of it
enough gloss to want freedom from it

There is Dunya wherever you go

Turn the atlas inside out

Cleaning the Jungle

One of the most thoughtful frontline accounts of the Calais Jungle.


jungle waste

Photograph courtesy of Viv Dawes, http://vivdawes.wix.com/vividpictures

From the first day I heard about the terrible plight of the refugees in Calais (their real plight, that is, not the media myth of economic migrants desperate to come and sponge off what’s left of our benefits system) I knew I had to do something to help. I had some ideas of what would help, and discussed them with a like-minded friend. But it became apparent, from reports from volunteers at what has become known as the Calais Jungle, most of the things I had thought of were no longer needed. However, what was needed was a huge waste removal operation.

We appealed for help, and had enough volunteers to fill two seven-seater people carriers. We begged, borrowed and bought shovels, garden forks, rakes, litter pickers (lots of litter pickers), industrial quantities of anti-bacterial hand wipes, gallons of disinfectant and thousands of rubbish…

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Andalusi Calligraphy: Here’s How You Learn More

The first time I saw Andalusi calligraphy I was hooked on the exaggerated curve of the ‘ayn, the large swooping nuun like a crane dipping down to a river for water, the zigzag kaf, the boxes and semicircles that variously made up the saads, daads, taas and zaas. It was like a cartoonist had made up this extraordinary script for fun, yet it also has a seriousness borne of practicality. There’s an air of the desert, too, a sense of spontaneity hiding behind its pragmatism.


Qur’an copied in Córdoba on 1657, currently conserved at the Escuela de Estudios Arabes

This is a script that reached its apex in al-Andalus, the 800 year period of Islamic Spain that bore witness to the most incredible explosion of learning and sophistication Europe had ever seen, and whose scholarship eventually travelled north to spark the Enlightenment.

Quick to learn, easy to write well due to its rounded nib that provides an even line (anyone who’s tried mastering angled nib calligraphy such as thuluth will confirm it takes years of practice to perfect), and easy to read, Andalusi was the vehicle for this massive boom in manuscript copying; in Córdoba around 1000 CE, there were hundreds of copy studios, one of which was staffed entirely by women.

Literally millions of books were copied out by hand and circulated in Andalusi society,religious trees that  not merely confined to libraries but also found in ordinary homes. Education was obligatory for all Cordoban children of any religion, pushing literacy higher than it had ever been in Europe. and for Western Muslims today, it bears resonances of a time when Islam was not something alien to Europe, but a natural element, just one of the many religious trees with roots in this soil.

You might be wondering at this point, ‘Why haven’t I heard of this script before?’ It’s a question we asked ourselves earlier this year, when my brother Zak Whiteman, who directs the Travelling Light on Imam al-Ghazali for Mishkat Media, decided to make a documentary on the subject and asked me on board. (You’ll be hearing the sultry sounds of my voice narrating the story.)

The Centro de Estudios Arabes, set in an old Moorish building, Granada. Featured in the Beginners's Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy

The Centro de Estudios Arabes, set in an old Moorish building, Granada. Featured in the Beginners’s Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy

It’s an exciting project and one we’re really looking forward to finishing…but we need help to make it a reality. Filmmaking doesn’t come cheap, and since one of our early sponsors fell through, we’ve been looking to crowdfunding to be able to complete the film.

You can watch the trailer here (yes that is our dad doing calligraphy, it’s Brand Whiteman!), and read more about the project on our LaunchGood page. We really appreciate any help towards our funding goal, as well as shares via email or social media. A huge thankyou to everyone who’s contributed already! We look forward to sharing this amazing story with the world.

Post-Ramadan Ramblings

Between long fasts and temperatures that hit 50 degrees Celsius here, its been an intense month. Although I haven’t been able to fast (Cavebaby is only just four months old and is fully breastfed), so many of my friends and family have been fasting that I’ve managed to share something of the fasting vibe. In any case, breastfeeding makes one pretty thirsty and absent-minded.

People who’ve never fasted wonder what the point is. A few days, fine, but a whole month? And – that ubiquitous response – ‘Not even water?!’ Is it an endurance exercise, a health jag, a way to recognise your blessings, an exercise in camaraderie or just an excuse to party every night? 

The faster’s response is that it’s all of these things and then some. Realizing you’re capable of a other hour, another day, another week, refreshes your faith in your own willpower, while research into fasting shows that it switches the body to clean-up mode (‘if there’s nothing to eat we’d better be in the best shape possible!’). It’s easy to say that we consume more than we need, but there’s no better way to test that out than by consuming nothing for 17 hours and still not keeling over.

The last few years I spent most of Ramadan staying at the home of my best friend in London, and I really miss those goony suhoors giggling over strange smoothies, and then the wild, creative exuberance of the first coffee of the evening. And if you’re in a Muslim country, prepare yourselves to spend all night feasting, strolling about towns that come to life, visiting family, even getting your hair cut at 3 am (Ramadan in Saudi was a hoot).

But if there’s no extra focus on one’s inner life it can feel like nothing more than hunger and thirst by day and binge eating by night. The extra focus that fasting gives (when it’s not making you bleary) supercharges Quran recitation and dhikr. But it is a test, and the test isn’t just about not eating and drinking: for Muslims living in the West, where work schedules continue as usual and most people aren’t getting up at 5am to have breakfast, there’s a sense of alienation that mitigates the togetherness of a shared Iftar. I remember one winter Ramadan when I was at university and Iftar fell during classes, and I didn’t eat once with anyone all month. It was about the most depressing month of my life.

When Ramadan falls in summer, there is all the attendant awkwardness around not being able to share beach picnics, barbecues and cold drinks with all the non-fasters. Social and sleep schedules get turned upside-down. Kids (the only ones who don’t feel like napping) complain because they can’t get taken to friends’ houses in the daytime whenever they feel like it. By the end of Ramadan you can easily feel like you haven’t seen half your friends for a month.

It’s worse for people whose work timetable has to continue as usual. Although being active helps to pass the time, the intense heat we’ve been having this year makes all the fasters flop out at a certain point in the afternoon, especially if they’ve been at tarawih prayers with barely any sleep before breakfast, if at all.

But it’s made me reflect on how there is a time for being active and a time for being still. Post-industrial Revolution life has gradually ramped up the pressure on human beings to work harder, and even rest means rushing about doing things. Nobody just sits and stares at clouds passing with a grass stalk in their mouth any more. I have struggled with the guilt of ‘taking time off work’ to have children (as if mothers spend their days gazing at clouds passing!), but in recent years I’ve started to see just how important rest is to health. With all three babies I’ve been prone to mastitis, the classic illness for mothers who aren’t resting enough. Rest before illness forces you to!

Even harder to get our heads around is weakness, and choosing to feel it, if only temporarily. Strength is so ubiquitously seen as a benefit that you’d be forgiven for thinking it an axiom. But weakness is only the flip side of strength, just as hunger is the flip side of satiety, sleep the flip side of wakefulness. You wouldn’t keep drinking coffee to avoid sleep without expecting a serious comedown afterwards, so why do we expect ourselves always to be strong? Feeling weak is a reminder that we aren’t the ultimate power in our lives, perhaps the bitterest pill for an ego to swallow. 

Women have monthly bouts of feeling tired and low, and there is wisdom in that too, as I wrote about in my blog post The Old Moon in the Arms of the New. Depending on others for help encourages mutual assistance, thankfulness and humility. It sound horribly sanctimonious but there is so much to be learned from weakness that it makes sense for everyone to have a taste of it once in a while.

Weakness isn’t just physical, either; my husband just arrived home after almost a month away working, and as soon as he got back I realized how much I had been tensing under the strain of carrying the family, the house, and watering a large piece of land on my own. I relaxed my grip on the whole outfit (a little prematurely – he gets back exhausted) and immediately felt tearful and sorry for myself for a couple of days. 

But it’s as necessary to hang up the armour and be vulnerable sometimes as it is to put your weary feet up and rest. Let it build up and it won’t be a couple of days of filthy mood to deal with but a full-blown crisis. So what’s stronger, being brave enough to admit to weakness and give the tough guy/gal act a rest, or trying to keep treading water when you’ve had enough? Everyone needs a life ring sometimes. 

Eid Mubarak, a blessed rest to all!

Folding Laundry

I write while folding laundry
the words rarely escaping my head
to fall onto a page like windfall tomatoes
in furtive moments between feeds
when that bit of stored milk
quenches a thirst but the pull of a hungry mouth
coaxes, conjures more.

I write wrongs while folding laundry
counsel emotionally disturbed
teenagers who only exist in theory
bring down the IMF
champion immigrants’ rights
give various world leaders a talking-to
make permaculture gardens in slums
all this is done by extendible arms
that stretch out tentacle-like
– how much good I could do if
I had a machine to fold laundry for me!

But I like folding laundry
the soothing sense of order
skyscrapers of clean dry fabric
repetitive motions that set thoughts straight
the ambiguity of whether it is
totally meaningless
– it’s only going to get dirty again
and nobody even notices –
or full of meaning
– this is a life of service
that pushes ego to one side
a microcosm of the great cycle
returning to the beginning
each time older, knowing more
about loss and letting go –
and anyway, would I like my clothes
automatically folded
like a frozen pizza
its base machine-extruded
cheese grated and spread by metal
oregano sprinkled without a hand
technically food, but so
starkly unhuman?

So I suppose I won’t get much else done
the world will continue a mess
but at least my wardrobe
won’t be.

Sparing Egos

I’m a dangerous lady right now.

After 32 years of being very British and smiling and nodding when irritating people want to pry into my state of mind and offer unwanted advice, I have reached cracking point. This is a formal warning: anyone who sees me around and exclaims “Oh my gosh! Your belly’s grown!! It’s enormous!!! Are you sure it’s not twins??!!!” will get short shrift, or possibly a black eye. My better nature would like to apologise in advance, but something is happening as I hit the 6 month gestation mark and my animal instincts are taking over. (What did they think, that my belly was going to start shrinking?)

Even worse is the daily question:

“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Ah, isn’t that nice, you’ve chosen not to find out, it’ll be a surprise…but what does your intuition tell you?”
“That I’m carrying the non-gendered child of Godzilla who will be my bodyguard wherever I go, biting off the limbs of anyone who PRIES INTO WHAT MY INTUITION TELLS ME.”

"Asian woman with angry ukelele in hand." Somehow seemed appropriate. By Tverylucky on freedigitalpotos.net

“Asian woman with angry ukelele in hand.” Somehow seemed appropriate. By tiverylucky on freedigitalphotos.net

I must be surrounded by lots of genuinely empathetic people who want to offer advice on how to deal with life, who may well have amazingly useful things to add, but I’m starting to feel that when people offer advice it is really for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the one they’re giving it to. Rushing up to someone with an expression of intense concern and telling them “You look like you’re in terrible distress! You need my help!” is more likely to produce the effect of being pushed off the nearest cliff (or ought to). If you really want to help me, why don’t you come to my house and do some dishes?

The trouble is that many of us are so well trained in problem-solving, in everything from maths to mindfulness, that we probably do have a lot of helpful advice to give, if only we could find someone to give it to. The number of times that I’ve thought, “They really should try…”, I could become an agony aunt. In fact, if I charged for my services it might actually be of some use; of all the advice I’ve been given, only about 1% has stuck – the 1% I actually asked for.

But problem-solving only works on non-human problems. Humans are far too troublesome to be able to come along and fix as though we were a crack in the road. Cracks in the road don’t have egos that bristle at the idea of being patronised or belittled. Giving advice is as good as belittling: you’re effectively telling a person that 1) they have a problem (which they might not have been aware of before; “I have a problem? Oh no!”) and 2) that they can’t possibly sort it out on their own. THEY NEED YOUR HELP.

People such as these need to read that all-time classic of psychology literature, Little Miss Helpful by Roger Hargreaves. Really. It has cured me of the existential disease of wanting to help people who don’t want be helped. I can now quite calmly watch people walk into ditches without feeling the urge to set them straight.

Perhaps I am also having a hint of apprehension at the fact that when another baby appears in the house, all of a sudden I will have thousands of well-meaning relatives bombarding me with tips on getting them to sleep well, how to deal with wind, what laundry detergent to use, which early educational tools will teach them six languages and calculus before they’re at kindergarten, and how to get back into pre-baby shape. The temptation is almost irresistible, especially when the target is a first-time mum, and I’ve fallen into its gaping jaws many a time myself.

But one of the reasons I started this blog was because I realised how little advice I had to offer anyone, how pointless it is to try to preach, how the only way I would ever connect with anyone is to be frank about my own failings. With the added benefit of making me laugh at them. It’s what you might call a ‘desahogo’ in Spanish: a place to ‘undrown’ myself.

The only time that problem-solving works on people is when you are left to your own devices and you come up with a solution yourself. Those are almost always the best solutions, custom-designed to your own situation, and they make you feel capable of dealing with the next problem that comes up. That’s the essence of creativity. Unless you need professional help, in which case, don’t ask advice from me.

Eventually this hormonal phase shall too pass and I’ll go back to offering a strained, patient smile whenever people tell me “Why are you so pale/thin/tall/female/English? You need X, then a course of Y, and finally Z at dawn every day for a week. I used to be like you, and now look at me!” But for now I am in blunt mode, and since no-one is sparing my ego, I shall spare none myself.

Remember, I’m carrying the child of Godzilla and I KNOW YOUR IP ADDRESS.

Grief is a Cascade of Shattering Glass

Grief is a cascade of shattering glass
waves glide beamingly overhead
opening light through their million edges
in ways that make sunshine new
(I am not used to this parasol)
and the premonition of pain is blurred by the beauty
Next minute
we’re walking chest-deep in fracture
the heat rushes up to heal hairline cuts
that fray hearts to a halo
but legs that appear to be shredded keep walking
mind takes note of extraneous things
– the cats have ran out of biscuits;
today breakfast was leftover rice –
yet mid-morning the thought of her friends and twin sister
washing her, as though asleep in their arms,
perfuming the long hair that once hung in a braid
from a white Astrakhan hat, dressing her
still-warm limbs lovingly,
and the silence of her song forever stilled
returns and aches into my corners
knocks the voice out of me.
Now again the brilliance rises:
the way she could call up an ocean of harmony
from a fidgeting room
turn strangers into heart-mates
and awe at her fearless direction,
blunt honesty when things sounded wrong,
sets a lamp beneath this ceiling of glass
and makes the inside more dazzling than all of the
stars crowding down at us
peering in through the clear roof of the moment
and wishing that they too could know grief.

In memory of a beloved friend, choir mistress and seeker Charlie Radha Spearing, who will be buried today. To donate to a ‘Joy Fund’ so that her 2 year old daughter and 12 year old son can visit their families and go on adventurous as their mother would have liked to have done with them, please visit this link: http://www.gofundme.com/ha6ilc

The Sweetest of Music

Thoroughly enjoying having a guitar about the house again, with new strings and all, so it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who would gladly twiddle and sing instead of switching on the music ting.

Ian Whiteman



home-design … and now

This post is on a musical subject, so for those whom music is proscribed then look away now. Or maybe not, as you might learn something.

I was recently on the west coast of the USA and was invited by an old friend to give a short lecture to a Community College class on the subject of Music and Islam. She had been teaching a course on Islam to a group of about fifty students, mostly white, in Livermore, a prosperous neighbourhood inland from San Francisco’s Bay Area, the world’s rich crucible of American technology and lifestyle. Teachers like Sh. Hamza Yusuf had also contributed to the course so I could hardly refuse.

These students were average Americans between 18 and 25, not from the super wealthy but from the middle classes who had all driven to college in their own cars. Much of the…

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Gaza + Motherhood: Invisible Heroism

I don’t usually like to write about a poem or a song; there’s an unspoken rule among writers that your work should speak for itself, the way that a joke becomes less and less funny the more you explain it. But I feel that my last poem, The Jihad of English People, could use a little clarifying.

When people talk about jihad, you know what images spring to mind. Arabic speakers know that ‘jihad’ means, first and foremost, a struggle – generally for a noble cause, such as that against harmful desires. In Islam the struggle against the base soul is the greater jihad, while armed combat in the pursuit of freedom from tyranny is the lesser. 

But while every newsfeed is crammed with the horrors of Gaza, the personal uphill struggle of dealing with the uncertainty of staying alive for another day, or losing a loved one in a targeted missile while they play tag on a beach, or having a ten-minute warning to escape (to where?) before your house gets bombed, seems so much more weighty than all of the minor, incidental struggles I wrote about in that poem.

The jihad of a mother who not only has to deal with changing nappies, stopping her kids fighting, and keeping everyone fed and clothed and educated for another day, but also grieves for her nephews and nieces being buried are immeasureable. I cannot begin to fathom it, in my safe First World cocoon.

So I hope that it does not come across as fatuous to talk about the jihad of postal workers, or company CEOs. The logic behind the poem brewed like this.

I was trailing the kids across the park while fasting (me, not them) to collect a bag of borrowed clothes from a kind friend. We stopped for a while, and they played; we stopped in the park on the way home, and they played. When it was getting late, and I was ready to pass out in the sandpit, I realised we’d left the bag of clothes behind and had to go back to her house before crossing the park again to get home.

Not a major issue for adults with ordinary length legs, but for small children who are already worn out it was too much. Cue four-year-old meltdown. Now, my usual reaction to these relatively small annoyances is to throw the toys out of the pram myself (so to speak). ‘Why can’t my kids learn resilience?’ I moan. ‘Why aren’t they more patient?’ I stamp my feet. ‘I’m sure other people’s kids handle this so much better!’ I fume with irrational levels of overreaction.

Everyone, without exception, is driven up the wall regularly by their kids. They have that unique combination of knowing all your weaknesses (and how to exploit them) and being too loved to risk being abandoned in a bus shelter. There are times you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it.

When it dawned on me that instead of being offended that my kids weren’t living up to my expectations, and started regarding childrearing as a kind of personal jihad, all my frustrations about not being in a position to battle the great injustices of the world fell into their rightful places. Everyone, ultimately, is battling something.

Some are in a position to do jihad against tyranny, political corruption, institutional abuses (as the famous hadith goes, ‘The greatest jihad is a word of truth in the presence of an oppressor’.) Others have their hands tied by family commitments, dealing with a serious illness, or caring for someone who needs them on a daily basis.

You don’t have to feel useless in the great order of things if you haven’t been able to lie down in front of Israeli tanks or chain yourself to the railings outside Number 10; you are also shouldering a burden that’s making you stronger, soldiering on through bleak landscapes, whether internal or external. Everyone is, whether they know it or not.

A few are enabled to make their heroism public, but that’s not many of us. Rearing a family that will bring benefit rather than harm to the world IS a noble cause. You might have your kids for yourself but you raise them for society’s sake. Mothering consciously is like no work, no responsibility, that any company CEO has ever been prepared for. 

So I salute those struggling everywhere, in personal jihads against addictions, depression, loneliness, fear, despair, existential void, illusion, and the intoxication of ease. It might be a war of contrition (as I’ve heard the battle against head-lice amusingly called) but at least you know you’re in good company. And may God grant respite to all those whose struggles begin by waking up to war.

The Jihad of English People

The jihad of English people

is to bear the blankness of grey days

to wade through a million petty gripes

without sinking into sourness

The jihad of mothers is trudging forwards

while a four-year-old tugs their hand backwards

to block out the screeching and the ingratitude

kicks, scratches and cusses and

still see a glow of hope around their kids

The jihad of postal workers is

going unnoticed except when they are absent

to remember how essential they are even when never thanked

The jihad of café workers in train stations

is to still feel life is new after making their

thousandth cappuccino

The jihad of company CEOS is

to tread water in crest and crash and

take the blame when blame is due 

instead of laying off worker bees in swarms

while they escape in a waxed Mercedes

The jihad of wives is to cycle through dozens of functions

– counseller, ironer, reminder of socks’ destiny

in laundry baskets, confidante, financial adviser, alarm clock for

important events, shoulder masseuse, head chef

without a wage, not to mention their jihad as mothers

and company CEOS or postal workers too – 

while staying centred amid the spin

The jihad of husbands is to notice that cycle and compliment them on it

and not be bewildered when their uncomplimented wives bawl

The jihad of doctors is to keep their hearts unglazed 

even when administering their umpteen death sentence 

because the next they hear might be their own

The jihad of ease is to stay unmuffled 

rejoin the whole instead of hiding behind alarmed gates

caressed by blandishments and easy fixes

The jihad of separation is to bear the body’s longing for closeness

without anaesthetising its need or punishing it for its desire

It is all an uphill walk through muddy fields

with the four-year-old of your ego

tugging backwards on your hand

whining for ice-cream or a carry

a jihad that has no killer dimensions

only weariness

and loneliness

and fear that it is all in vain

We patriots of the human nation

wake each day as untagged soldiers

every tiny struggle borne in noble, ordinary causes

an unreported chance for us to be

a hero.