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

piano


 then…..

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.

Night Bus To Hackney

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Grime hangs in London’s unlit streets
away from the gleam of white stone Aldwych
shy St Martin-in-the-Fields behind
a bridal veil embroidered with plane leaves
the dazzle of downward lines reflected on the Thames
from the blue, red, green South Bank
the baubles of the boats
and the owlish eyes of Big Ben.

I’m scrolling backwards now: I began in a
frantic fruitless race to meet my daughter’s plane
on the worst night of the year. A torrent of
yellow Lycra would be coming through the centre of town
on the morrow; trains were disrupted already,
at midnight on Sunday. Through the liquid flares of light
in my livid tears I hopped from Elephant & Castle
to Westminster (that travelcard bought
from the rosy-eyed skaghead at London Bridge
for 2 quid proved a godsend) and from there I walked
along Embankment, alone and daughter-less,
hunting down a lesser-spotted
Night Bus to Hackney.

(That day I’d been rugby-tackling 12 kids
into doing creative writing; the only thing
that seemed to grab them was the circular poem,
written on one face of a mobius strip.
It was a clever trick but paused thoughts,
the sentence cycling under eye
like a pavement that keeps returning.)

Under the bridge the foothpath was closed for works;
veering into the road a brilliant white coach slowed
as it passed me, just as the yellow LED
ticker tape read: …to GODWARD ST.
I wanted to shout Ya Aziz! I call You and You answer!

Now my feet clicked on merrier, nose picking up an old scent:
there was Savoy Street – I was where I understood.
Rounding Aldwych, a Scottish lass with gushing bloodied knee
staggering and laughing, a flurry of people
wide-eyed and foolish, shoelaces undone
with a sheen of vodka, I was safe
on a very British belvedere among Russians
Bengalis and Koreans with maps.
I took the N26 towards Chingford and from the top deck
we passed Godliman Street, too.
For a city that scorns belief it is Threadneedled into its map,
a Strand of awe stitched through its Petticoat,
a Bishop at one gate, a Moor at the other.

Once the protective shine of tourist attractions
gave way to Cambridge Heath and Columbia Rd,
despite its Decent International store,
the gloom lurked in to leer at the lost.
Tattery fringes hung from mislit lamps;
a man wheeled past an amp, his friend
with blue ink smudged on his cheek wished me
a dreary ‘Bo selecta’.

All the while my company
was a Senegalese dhikr, of Allah and nothing else,
an ever-repeating refrain on mobius lips.

Vast Forests (Poem Written While Fasting)

Everything reminds me of absence
the metallic mouthfeel
gurgling plumbing
phone call from my beloved on a
foreign plane
breaths from mouths too dry to talk sense
the dinner we started preparing too early
there is longing even in lost miswaks
displacement in a pair of shoes
clothes that came aboard boats from China
rugs bought in Turkish bazaars
sold by city folk but woven by peasant women
in alternate landscapes
pineapples pressed in Costa Rica
to be consumed in Hackney, E9
everything is gone before it is touched
en route to another place
nothing homely, nothing whole
nothing original, nothing owned
these things are not ours nor ever were
since our hands have never touched anything
only seen sense-pictures created within ourselves
we are sealed
hermits against an outside unreal
always being taken somewhere else
and sold
and altered
and blown into a different form
so nothing is new or alive
only
whatever we live first-hand
within the vast forests within
that no-one else can take
that no-one else can taste unless
they leave their heavy cloaks and fly
into those forests with you
or you do likewise and drop your body-dunes
and roam across their plains.

To Kill or Convert You

Hatred is a tide
that gnaws away at coastlines
salty teeth so fine you might
mistake it for subtlety.
But bitterness is never mild
just as acid always burns
and bigots pour their poison
into intellectual-sounding words
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
to stun the seaweed
bobbing idly in the surf
infuse the fear into it
that some vile wave is rising over there
its colour bilious green
and even if it tells you it’s benign
enriched with algae to revive the earth
you mustn’t heed its lies:
it is bloodthirsty, heinous,
risen up from different lands
infested with parasites
designed to leech
your vital organs dry:
to kill or convert you.
Race from it as you would from a shark
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
warn the world about it
kill it before it kills you first.
The biosphere must have its predators and
in this one you are their prey.
This tide’s a spiral
pushing us apart and
driving us down deeper
into the blurring mud.
Once it was Jews
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
and this fresh wave we swim in
the water soaked into our cells is now
a tsunami threatening
to smash their homes to matchsticks.
Vague outrages that flare up
each time the words are spoken
dump blood into the sea
and choke the wildlife.

Hatred has always been a tide
stooping low at times
or breaking its banks
in the absence of truth.
I am learning to tread water
for the day it hits my roof.

Watch the Dancer

She translates longing into leafstorms,
that dancer. She turns the bright sun beak
of a wheeling lark into a swooping hand
calls on the lichen’s listening creep
the golden arches of dry riverbeds
and races them into our quick-lived gaze
so when we watch that dancer’s sweep and stamp
we don’t just see tendons and skin but
algorithms of wind and root
the shooting out of limbs that fruit
sped up halfway to a fly’s life span.
So when we watch that dancer we
might catch the glacier as it glides
the underwater mass collide
the mountain creep over horizons
redwoods burst with rings and ride
breakers too vast to fit inside
a human tide. That dancer, she
gives voiceless forces words
they would still understand,
so watch the dancer
if you can.

In Stillness

The conversation’s changing.

Where we once betted on the odds of rain

or complained about it soaking our shoes again

our sighs are reserved for internet tides,

wifi droughts and downloads shy as brides

while all around a hurricane of data flies

so seek the stillness at its core. If you lean

your curious head out, seeking more

it will toss you about like a toy

but on the inside, everything’s joy.

Watch the furniture dance in its 

ludicrous attempts to allure

watch the frames grow dustier

– it collects as you resist –

and the longer you hold back 

from tumbling in among the grist

in this vortex of desire and need 

of unsatisfying gut-mind feeds

the anger in its frustrated call

blows red and heavies the wind

with firestones and curses.

You counterculture scum – you dare

defy the raging wheel of dunya?

It will pelt you with fearful rocks

pepper you with doubts against your cause

and it seems so hard and physical, but stay

in this tranquillity; don’t take the hooks it throws you,

let them drop. This wall of wind believes 

it will keep twisting on forever.

But it was born of lunar high tides

silent moon gazing in love and

whipping up the whistling waves

that roll in shaggy tubes onto the beach

and end up in rock pools and homes for

crabs, anemones. That force

was forged by other powers

and every one of them 

comes out of stillness

and in stillness it meets

its match.

An Addiction to Storms

  The wind is talking. There’s a thundering around, whistling in low, confiding tones between the orange trees and knocking a shower of fragrant petals to the floor. Of all the imaginary vehicles we’d devised over dinner – to escape a tantrum more than anything else – the wings on this wind seem the most powerful means of transport available: it is a brutal angel, muscular and singing unseen.
  There were no stories tonight, only bitter sobs, and meek children not understanding, stroking my shoulders and seeking peace. The peace came a minute before they dropped off, clinging to my hand and shoulder; it was so exquisite after the exasperation and outrage and despair that I had to turn the light off to savour it.
  I scoured my remembered psychology notes for what it added up to: with every petulant fit my inner parent raged, looking for vindication and respect, while my inner child threw toys out of the pram, causing my inner parent in turn to scold it for doing so. The correct terminology might be: ‘What’s the root cause of my own imbalance that’s playing itself out in our family dynamic?’
 Then I gave up trying to auto-analyse and worked instead on the practical means of handling two kids who’d been whipped into a giddy pair of hurricanes, fighting and flinging makeshift weapons, giggling and howling by turns, and giving me the most unbelievable lip. This time the jargon would have read: ‘What am I doing to spark this conflict, and what can I do to pull the rug on it once it’s already in motion?’

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  And then, hours after the crisis had been lulled into post-storm calm, my husband tells me, “Don’t try to analyse it, either what you’re doing or where it’s coming from. Just love your children, say ‘alhamdulillah’ that they’re healthy and well, give them a hug and a kiss when he gets angry. That’s all they need. The anger is coming from that need.”
  I am beginning to wonder if I don’t have an addiction to storms. The build-up, all excitement and nerves, then the physical lift off the ground as the gale builds up into a towering column of fury, and then the hollowing-out as the reason for its continuation is forgotten or falls through, and finally the crashing of all the chairs and trees and cars that had been lifted up into the arms of this torrent as they drop to the ground.
  Nothing seems stiller or more balmy than right at this moment, once the storm has blown itself out. The mental imbroglio that a brain with a reading habit gets itself into over any problem that surfaces suddenly falls quiet, like the sea at low tide. You look out at where the seagulls wheel and lurch without troubling yourself as to why they are doing it.
  These personal thunderstorms can have the rug pulled out from under them, if it is done by expert hands that are not shaking with a sympathetic rage. The guns that anger pulls all melt with the white heat of unconditional acceptance.
  All kinds of analyses run through my mind regarding Islam. It’s impossible to avoid it when you read the news, or have a Facebook newsfeed brimming with Muslim commenters. At every moment we seem to be stepping out of our shoes and assessing ourselves, our ‘community’, with an outsider’s eye.
  It’s an entertaining pastime, but when it comes down to it, the only way I can explain it is that Islam has a direct effect on a person’s heart. It’s like an adaptogen*: it will do whatever your heart needs. If it is rigid, it will shake it up. If it is lonely, it will give it solace. If it is wounded, it will heal. If it is hard, it will melt it. If it is to open, it will give it protection.
  So there is a kind of extreme optimism at work within a Muslim’s heart. ‘Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli hal’ was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.s.) favourite sayings. It means ‘Halleluyah in all conditions’, ‘May God be praised for every state’. It means streaking right past the raised fists and embracing the fighter with more than love – with gratitude. It is not merely saying ‘I forgive you’ but ‘I thank God for you’.
  What can outrage do with that kind of reaction but drop its weapon in surprise?

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*Adaptogen: a medicinal plant that will return the body to homeostasis, i.e. do whatever the body needs in order to regain balance

Performance at Rumi’s Cave Live Lounge End of Year special

Video

This is a video of a short performance I did on the 21st of December 2013 for the wonderful people at Rumi’s Cave, a collective of artists, spoken word poets and musicians with the loveliest vibe I’ve ever come across. The visuals are a little blurry but the sound quality is great.

The two songs I played were Water (Carry the World in My Paper Cup) and Poor Man’s Prayer. The first is my own composition while the second is composed of lyrics by my dad Abd al-Lateef Whiteman which I picked up one day and put music to without knowing that he’d already put it to a traditional Andalusi tune.

Many thanks to Nura Tarmann who shot the video and shared it!

Lyrics

Water (Carry the World in My Paper Cup)

Running, come on keep up
carry the world in my paper cup
I’m on the phone since the moment I’m up
being important

I’m fully booked til mid-July
I don’t have time to wonder why
got to keep the pace up

But my boss doesn’t notice me
(it’s OK, he’s in a hurry)
I need approval you see
(it’ll come your way, don’t worry)
I can’t take it any more
working myself into the floor
and I never seem to get rewarded
tomorrow I’ll just work harder

Water flows, it
never slows, you
don’t miss yours
until your well runs dry

Just try to find some
peace of mind, you
can’t rewind
all the hours gone

And were you even for them, at…

All the time I waste
keeping up appearances in cyberspace
you know it feels so real

I’m just one click away
from the tranquility I crave
to numb the way I feel

But when the screen’s off I’m alone
(befriend the quiet and you’ll see)
I’m a stranger in my own home
(befriend yourself and you’ll be free)
is the future dark or bright,
is this blindness or insight
they said that I was born to play
but am I pawn or player in this game?

Water flows, it
never slows, you
don’t miss yours
until your well runs dry

Just try to find some
peace of mind, you
can’t rewind
all the hours lost

And were you even there for them
were you there for them
were you there…

at all

Poor Man’s Prayer (lyrics AL Whiteman)

When the dawn breaks
and the sky shakes
and the stories all unfold
when the earth gives up its secrets
the truth can be now told

You will stand there right before Him
and your voice will seem so small
Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear Your call.

Why’s your heart in such confusion
when this water is so pure?
It’s this doubt that is illusion
and this drink is just the cure
Thirty years I have been calling
don’t You hear my cry at all?

Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear Your call.

When I stood here empty-handed
You sufficed my every need
I didn’t dare to ask for more
in case you thought it greed
What is heaven? What is bliss?
Can I ask for any more than this?

Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear your call.

Why’s your heart in such confusion
when this water is so pure?
It’s this doubt that is illusion
and this drink is just the cure
Thirty years I have been calling
don’t you hear my cry at all?

Lord forgive me
I’m just a poor man
who tried to hear Your call

Lord forgive me
Lord forgive us all
We tried to hear Your call

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