Afterbirth

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The carob seedling that took two years
to grow two feet was planted over
half of the placenta that took
nine months and eleven days to develop
and forty minutes to birth
into a bucket, so dense with my blood
it looked like crushed raspberries.

There are pieces of me buried all over,
one beneath a pomegranate tree
in a nearby Andalusian garden;
another under an apple tree in a
Norfolk farm – the only one in the orchard
to fruit the first year.

The goodness of meat
that once nourished my babies
before they opened their mouths to eat
the meat that died in the act of birth
now feeds those stalks and leaves,
sipped thoughtfully by xylem and phloem
(words I learned eighteen and a half
years ago, the only ones that have
travelled forward from Science GCSE)
and plumps out fruit that I
shrink from eating lest it be
cannibalism:
my flesh into theirs,
vegan victuals from viscera.

Parts of me are already underground.
The backward-rolling echo of tombs
reaches me half-asleep, feeding
a dozing baby, not knowing if an hour or
ten minutes have passed, the way
the mind dashes forward during prayer
and a third rak’ah feels like a fourth.

Time is plastic when one has already put
an organ into a tiny grave, when one’s footprint there
roots the soul to the soil. It owns me now
in three segments, yearning for the last piece
(currently in my freezer) to join them underneath
an avocado sapling, followed one day
by the rest. Like taproots busy seeking
low lying aquifers there are unseen ligaments
that tie me to the world
so that the hot air balloon of my thoughts
– straining against its ropes –
does not spiral off and be vaporised
by the sharp edge of the atmosphere.

There are parts of me
all over, buried too deep
for dogs and foxes to despoil
deep as the bones of an ‘aqiqah lamb
must be buried too.

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You Forget

The same eternal newborn returns each time
to different arms, does the same belch
(in various tongues)
deposits the same spit-up
on T-shirt shoulders,
sealskin coats and jellabiyahs
saris, kurtas, kimonos
striped sweaters and batik robes.
Reeling back through its
tireless trajectory it
did the same on togas, Celtic cloaks
bare skin and button-neck Victorian blouses.
This is a well-practised baby
educated in how to curl its toes
when the sole is stroked
expert at rounding its lips towards
a touch on the cheek
it snuffles politely when hungry
– eyes closed to smell better –
or howls with gum ridges exposed
face the same outraged knot
no matter the colour of the cloth
and there is the same hiss as it feeds
same gulping, same satisfied silence
fists arrayed in sleep
as though a triumphant boxer.
I could be an Aztec and
the same rhythm would ensue:
change, feed, burp, feed, burp, sleep.
They cooed as I do,
kissed noses, tickled bellies
squished rolls of fat on arms
made up silly, fond names
crooned lullabies
walked about at night to calm a gassy gut.
All arms understand rocking
knees recall being half-crossed
to form a triangular bed
and bounced in regional variations of a horse
eyes find these delicate fingers familiar
rush to trace the extraordinary
tiny face, to meet the old, old gaze
so knowing it makes you bashful
lips always returning the refrain
“How amazing! So tiny! You forget…”
They intend it as parents of grown-older kids
who keep speed with their growth
so they never seem small
but inside that meaning is another:
they too were that ancient child once
fresh from the other world,
then the ancientness seeps out and
solidity creeps in
and you forget.
Go to sleep, little baby:
in sleep you are
returned.

Of Men, Mothers and Mercy

How people think hippie women look. Actually from an advert for a Hallowe'en costume.

How people think hippie women look. Actually from an advert for a Hallowe’en costume.

Recently I picked up a copy of Dr. Christiane Northrup’s classic (and colossal) book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, and haven’t been able to put it down. If you know any hippie women, you will almost certainly have seen it on their homes, alongside Healing With Whole Foods, B.S.K. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, and an amethyst geode propping up the shelf above.

Far more useful than a piece of furniture, however, this book has revived my appreciation of the feminine principle, a principle so easily suppressed or chased away in a city where everything is judged on how it scores in the masculinity charts.

An OB/GYN, Northrup shows the relationship between women’s negative attitudes towards their bodies, especially when it relates to sexual abuse or trauma, translates very clearly into their sexual health. Positive changes in these attitudes often have immediate effects on their physical symptoms. But I am shocked at how deeply the negativity runs for so many women. So many who attended her practice manifested signs of loathing or being ashamed of their bodies, and of giving up responsibility for its health by expected a paternalistic doctor to ‘take charge’ and ‘do something’. It made me so thankful not to have absorbed that thinking – at least, not enough to have ended up in her surgery.

The Gulf of Mixed Metaphors

It is clear that for thousands of years, qualities we think of as being ‘masculine’, such as winning by brute force or imposing authority on others deemed to be inferior have trumped such delicate, ‘feminine’ qualities as understanding, nurture, patience, and sharing in responsibility and success equally. Yet few women embody these qualities fully; one of the failings of western feminism is that in order for women to be considered as successful or empowered they must prove themselves by ‘masculine’ criteria by reaching the top of their profession (even if it be by hook or by crook), imposing authority on others, or winning accolades that distinguish them as being superior. Between Mother Teresa and Maggie Thatcher there’s a awfully big gulf.

How not many people think hippie women look. No jokes abut Hallowe'en costumes, please - let's be civil.

How not many people think hippie women look. No jokes abut Hallowe’en costumes, please – let’s be civil.

Another aspect of this ‘patriarchy’ – which Northrup calls the ‘Addictive System’ coined by Anne Wilson Shaef as an alternative to the negative, man-bashing term ‘patriarchy’ – is that of hierarchies. A tribal chief, so the theory goes, must impose authority on elders, who in turn impose it on the ordinary men of the tribe, who in turn impose it on the women, who in turn impose it on the children. Everyone has their place in the pecking order. Thus patriarchal (or addictive) thinking instills the idea that some men are born more equal than others.

I’ve noticed how hard it is to convince women (and often men) that they are able to write something beautiful, or do something creative. Why is that? I think it’s because we’ve learned that experts do these things, experts whom we’ve placed above ourselves in the hierarchy of creativeness, whose work we happily consume but wouldn’t dare try to rival. The opposite approach is to see all people as being essentially equal and all people’s subjective experiences as being equally valuable. Coming from this angle, workshop participants can relax into the idea that they don’t have to compete with others to produce something ‘good’, and in the fact that the whole criteria for quality needn’t come from others in the first place. No-one need judge themselves higher or lower than others because of their creative output.

Birth: the Ultimate Oscar

There is a creative power in pregnancy, birth and childrearing that trumps all of the worldly trophies that a culture obsessed with masculinity can offer. Women giving birth experience more pain than any man is capable of experiencing without passing out, and also the highest levels of endorphins that any human being can experience (immediately after a drug-free, non-interventionist birth – and the baby shares the same high). After the birth of Caveboy, I came back from having a bath feeling ready to deliver an acceptance speech for an Oscar: “I’d like to thank my mum for making me tea, my midwife for not hurrying me along, my birthing pool for being so floatatious…”

Seems so relaxing...

Seems so relaxing…

While there are men who witness this awesome process, and male midwives are privy to it on a regular basis, men can’t fully understand it because they can’t live it themselves. It occurs to me that God shares a secret with women – both those giving birth and those witnessing it – that men have to strive through a lifetime of personal and/or religious efforts to learn. Nevertheless, if we start crowing about how amazing we are for going through this process, we’ll get sucked into the same story of competition and hierarchy that we’re trying to escape. Unfortunately, even having a ‘natural’ birth can end up a kind of competition, with women blaming themselves when things don’t go according to plan or envying mothers for whom things did.

Blaming patriarchy is part of the very patriarchal values that divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, encouraging some to assert their superiority over others, and leading to a perpetual cycle of reaction and aggression that has left most of the Middle East now (not to mention DRC, Sri Lanka, Burma, and countless other places) in bloodied shreds. Of course Muslim societies have become patriarchal; so have all societies around the globe. That’s not because patriarchy is superior all round, only that it’s physically stronger, and the more powerfully destructive military technology becomes, the more difficult it is to stand up against it.

The rhetorical expression ‘fighting fire with fire’ doesn’t work if you’re a firefighter. You calm fire with water. Hatred cannot neutralise hatred; you have to practise its opposite.

Of Men and Mercy

When Islam first emerged, it was in an Arabia so deeply entrenched in a vicious form of patriarchy that not only would internecine wars go on for decades and claim the lives of tens of thousands of people, but quite literally baby girls would be buried alive in the desert. A Bedouin man once bragged to the Prophet Muhammad (s.): “I have ten children and I have never kissed any of them,” to which the Prophet replied, “He who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.”

Makkah as it was in 1850, before the real estate developers moved in

Makkah as it was in 1850, before the real estate developers moved in

Attitudes towards masculinity at the time were that men had to be tough, brutal warriors who didn’t just stand up for themselves but would fight aggressively to defend their ‘honour’ (whatever that meant to them). Muhammad (s.), on the other hand, refused to fight the Quraysh of Makkah, who responded to his early attempts to talk them out of their oppressive economic and cultural practices by throwing stones at him, boycotting him and his followers and drowning out his voice with jeers.

At the time he lived in the house his wife Khadijah (r.) built for them. She, incidentally, was 40 when she cajoled him into marrying her when he was 25; was a wealthy, respected, educated, literate noblewomen, as well as his boss; and was twice widowed with three children when they married, upon which she bore six children! Even years after she died, whenever her name was mentioned Muhammad (s.) would turn pale and tremble from missing her so much.

Archaeological dig of Sayyidah Khadijah's (r.) house, c. 1988. The larger room at the bottom of the pic was where they lived for 28 years; it measured about 6x4m.

Archaeological dig of Sayyidah Khadijah’s (r.) house, c. 1988. The larger room at the bottom of the pic was where they lived for 28 years; it measured about 6x4m.

In the courtyard of this house was a stone shelf under which he would hide under when the neighbours threw stones at him in his own home. He didn’t move house, or throw stones back, or even complain. There was also an elderly woman who would leave thorny branches outside his door each day; when one morning he saw that the thorns weren’t there, he went to her house and asked after her health. He even send his own daughter together with a number of the Companions to Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) to live under the Christian Emperor Nabash, where they could live in peace under a just ruler.

All of this was utterly astonishing to the Quraysh. What kind of a man would refuse to stand up for himself with violence, telling his followers to return evil with good, to forgive your oppressors when they ask for forgiveness, and prefer emigration over retribution? Mercy was considered a feminine quality, and therefore something that represented weakness and inferiority. The word rahma, or mercy, is related not only to the two most oft-repeated Names of God, Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim, the Merciful and the Compassionate, it is also related to the word rihm, meaning womb.

All of the battles between the Muslims and their opponents occurred not in or around Makkah, but around Madinah, once the Quraysh and their allies came to the doorstep of the new Muslim community seeking bloodshed, and it became clear to Muhammad (s.) that they would have to defend themselves or die. When the Muslims wanted to return to Makkah to perform the annual Hajj – a ritual that dated back to Abrahamic times, but which had been monopolised by the Quraysh, who had filled the Ka’abah with effigies of their deities – the Muslims came to Hudhaibiyah, a village outside Makkah, and signed a treaty with the Quraysh effectively rendering them second-class citizens, simply in exchange for being able to perform the pilgrimage. They entered Makkah unarmed, performed Hajj, and a flabbergasted Makkah surrendered without a drop of blood being spilled.

This might all sound like a rose-tinted picture of the history of Islam, and certainly there are narrations that seem to tell a different story. What is clear is that when under duress, including starvation and threats of murder from his own clansmen, the Prophetic example was to remain kind, tolerant, and forgiving. He taught that patience, service, humility and gentleness were qualities elevated far above forcefulness, egotism and aggression. Restoring family ties, helping enemies to make peace, and being on the same level as even the most lowly and vulnerable of society were praised in the highest terms.

Referring specifically to childbirth, a man once came to the Companion Ibn ‘Umar (r. – some narrations say it was the Prophet, s.) and said: “I have carried my mother on my back all the way from Iran. Have I done enough to repay her?” to which he replied: “Not even for one contraction.” More recently, a Sufi master called Muhammad Ibn al-Habib (rahimahu Allah) told a bunch of English converts who visited him in the 1970s: “Don’t argue with your wives. Just tickle them until you both fall to the floor laughing.”

Feminism Free From Finger-Pointing

All this seems a far cry from the misogyny that is now endemic, whether in the Muslim world or the planet at large. Yet I can’t point fingers at patriarchy, or men in general; men have excellent qualities that women also benefit from. If I were giving birth in a real life cave I’d feel quite safe with a big burly bloke stationed at the mouth of the cave with a burning brand to scare away the sabre-toothed tigers.

"Go, on shoo, you lot, I'm 'avin a baby"

“Go, on shoo, you lot, I’m ‘avin a baby”

I recently dreamed of a friend being pregnant and going to see a male healer, who gave her what I can only describe as an incredibly feminine, loving, nurturing kind of healing. It made me realise that I dismiss the idea of men having this depth of love and care – despite being married to one who does!

Abandoning our internalised patriarchy means rejecting blame, dualism, competition, envy, and judging self and others based on a hierarchical criteria of superiority. It means taking stock of ourselves from the inside out, addressing our relationships from our own failings and projections before blaming others, taking responsibility for our own problems instead of expecting Big Daddio to come and rescue us or bring out the big guns.

This may or may not be ‘feminine’ thinking, but it certainly links up our emotional intelligence with our rational minds in a much more rounded way, just as the female brain connects right and left hemispheres with a thicker bundle of nerves. Patriarchy might be nothing more than lopsided thinking after all.

One Week Left

There are elemental
qualities of womanhood
that childbirth likes to elicit.

The quiet of a forest
patient digging of an ant
carrying burdens fifty
times its weight
accepting all without complaint
an oak tree growing
silently from nothing.

An Amazon with gritted teeth
a lioness predating
some roaring creature unafraid
tenacity incarnate
the ferocious crash of a
whale’s tail against water
the indomitable swell of a
tidal wave.

And after,
overflowing tenderness
giving all unthinkingly
the bliss of being more than one
careening from tears to kisses
transformed from child
to mother nature
gratitude that it all
worked out
for the best.

The Death Knell of Illusion

Shock is the death knell of illusion. The initial impact wakes us out of a stupor, and as the reverberations die out the stupor returns, only to be dispelled again with every remembered toll.

I had been given my neighbours, a retired couple from England, Spanish lessons for several months. The last time I saw him was at our lesson; I was drilling him on the conditional tense. He seemed distracted, in love with his garden, almost floating, but still badgering me to create a strict lesson plan so they could keep learning. Less than a week later, his wife and daughter came by to tell me that he’d died.

It shouldn’t be a shock to us that people do that. Has anybody ever heard of someone who didn’t die? Apart from the ones who haven’t yet? People get ill, parts of their bodies recriminate them for their former lifestyles, their unintentional neglect, or merely their genetic code.

But death is the sharpest revealer of our imagined state of permanence. If it weren’t for the illusion that we’ll be hanging around forever – from which we all suffer much more than any physical disease – death wouldn’t come as a shock at all. Mundane reality would recognise its own constant loss; it would see itself trickling away from the solid shape of ice into the clear liquid it was carved from.

Is it possible to maintain that clarity of vision all the time, aware of the true nature of being in the world without feeling sad or lost or robbed? Would it be a burden to keep it up, or does it come naturally with a certain realisation, hearing that death knell and never returning to the happy dream of immortality? Must it take a death to bring us out of the neat-fronted shops in which we stack up our merchandise for the world to see, the reassuring to-do lists of work and entertainment, the day as it’s defined by a plastic ticking tyrant?

If we saw a train heading for us full pelt, we wouldn’t shut our eyes and pretend we were ice-skating. As someone told me before the birth of Shamsie, it’s only the anticipation of some unknown event that creates fear, just as the anticipation of pain creates pain.

Once you’re there, fear is ridiculous; it’s a corridorful of marbles when you’re trying to get out the door on time. And when that self-concocted hindrance is gone, you can see the liberation of death, just as you can see the mind-combusting beauty of birth, over and above the pain and the inelegance of either.

I remember thinking during my labour with Shamsie, ‘I don’t feel anything, no great psychedelic experience, no overwhelming presence of the Great Spirit or anything!’ At first I thought I’d been conned. But a moment later I thought, Perhaps this IS God. The idea came as a shock, of course. My expectations had been shattered; my ideas about how God would be were, as all ideas about God are, my own creative nonsense.

It is at the thresholds of earthly existence that the no-thing-ness of reality sinks in. The birds keep singing outside. The cars keep beeping their horns. But something essential has been transformed on the inside, and there is nothing to grab onto. Words cease to be useful coat hooks to hang concepts on: it is all just as it is.