Hiatus in the Reasoning Mind

When they pulled us out
through the broken side window
the one I smashed with my cheek
as the car behind hit ours
– oh my God oh my God oh my God –
I saw a couple in their late 30s, perhaps,
soft, dark, kind eyes
but strong and wordless
familiar from I didn’t know where
dark curly hair
she was shortish
soothing and solid as a nurse
who takes trauma in her arms daily
he was young, too, black-haired
colour in their cheeks

I turned to hug my seven year old
both sobbing relief
pieces of blue shattered glass
on us, the seats, the edge
of the ditch we’d skidded into
metal violence of the impact
still shuddering in my bones
hot hurt on my face
blooming into a bruise
then our rescuers were gone
and a dozen others appeared
to console, assess damage to
the car – crushed concave
door lips now pressed eternally together
help pledged
glass of water fetched
the police in reassuring
yellow jackets appeared
from a restaurant down the road
embraces, explanations from the
man in the other car
his inflated airbags wilting and
cracked radiator weeping
“This isn’t what anyone wants, is it…”

Later, the car towed,
we shored up at Casualty
the young doctor tearing his hair out
at the amount of paperwork to do
told me to touch my nose, his finger, here
here, there, and there
hammered my kneecaps
said I was lucky I didn’t
break my cheekbone
– luck! –
the story spiralled
became a slip from death
in my recountings
as perhaps it was
packs of friends came by
like wise women bringing
organic praline and grape juice
to a giggling Mary with
half-Iranian baby Jesus on her lap
one even went home to bake us a cake
– luck! –

Five days later, I’d been
sick and sore, neck sprained
headachey but counting blessings
the baby wasn’t in the back seat
where his car had caught ours
– luck! –
so musing I went to change a charger
at a computer shop where the couple
always seemed fed up of selling tech
disgruntled, pallid, he
prematurely white-haired, she
a towering bottle redhead with
glum green eyes and
lipstick over an unsmiling mouth
We haggled a bit: he complained
the keyboard I’d taken back worked fine
made me buy a better cable than
then one I’d planned to buy,
gave a wry laugh about the
capriciousness of wires
As I’m leaving he asks,
How are you after your crash?
I point to the faint emerald crescent
on my cheek, the tiny scratch fading.
Did you see the car?
We were there, he replies, in the car behind,
saw everything. Lucky he wasn’t going so fast.
Lucky! They had to pull me out
of the window! I remonstrated.
That was us, he says quietly.
I pulled you out.
There is a glint
in his black irises
of a holy secret shared.

I struggle to pair this
slightly grumpy man
bored wife accomplice
with the couple in my memory:
it couldn’t have been them!
Confused, I explain that
it all went blank,
thanked them anyway, backed out,
spinning. Did I repaint them,
in the panic of the moment,
that hiatus in the reasoning mind?
Or was that a glimpse
of their best selves,
their waiting hero selves,
the strong, alive, kind selves
who are not worrying about returned keyboards
balancing books, the tedium of tablets
repeated conversations about
warranties and RAM?
That was not them;
that was them,
not disappeared, only
in waiting.

Fires of Regret and Relief

You sleep curled in a hungry embrace
filling the space your father left

her lips pressed to your forehead
eclipse the absence of his kiss

she strokes your hair and forgets
the hand that would sting if it touched hers now

your warm weight on her belly
almost replaces

her need to be encircled

You must have drunk in
her panic too

exposed like a mother cat
on a coverless plain

but you don’t see her
as she sees herself

scarred and tired
and less than lovable

You sleep in bliss
while she weighs her options

will stumbling and kindling
fires of regret and relief

Sleep. You are the sea she gained
when her spring ran dry

and while her cheeks sparkle with thanks
she prays she hasn’t given you

a taste for disaster

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