Danger of Surfing While Muslim

No, I’m not talking about burkinis again…I’m talking about The real risk to heart and mental health posed by scrolling for hours through social media posts that, through the wonders of logarithms (named for their inventor, Al-Khwarizmi – those darned Muslims at it again), present an echo chamber of your own opinions…except when you read the comments on public posts, and are temporarily traumatised by the burst of hatred towards Muslims and Islam in general.

The problem is that I actually agree with some of their points. There ARE issues, not just horrors of corrupt governments or backward laws but – as Jonathan A.C. Brown points out in his highly recommendable book Misquoting Muhammad – doctrinal sticking points that have produced, among hundreds of stances, a few very exaggerated ones.

These viewpoints are usually held by people so certain of their own correctness that they would not waste time listening to more broad-minded Muslims quoting the hadith that heads every major collection, ‘Al-‘amal fi’n-niyya’: actions are in intentions. Or that one of the keystone principles of Islam and therefore jurisprudence is to act with mercy, that is, minimising harm and judging with compassion.

To be quite frank, I’m just as terrified of these small but mouthy gang of ultra-conservative Muslims as the Islamophobes are. If they were to grill me on my views they would probably find me appallingly liberal (with any luck I’d give the Alt-Right a heart attack, too). I am forever thankful to be living in a country where I do have the freedom to espouse whatever views I wish; by the same token, not being tied to a chair by a Stasi agent in a dank underground bunker, I am under no obligation to give a full disclosure to anyone of my opinions.

However, I get the feeling that there is a tendency towards the monochrome in all these discussions. An American might well point fingers at parts of the Muslim World that shall remain unnamed for religious police, clerical corruption, abuse of immigrants, the squashing of women’s rights, restrictive laws and corporal or capital punishments. Without having spent a significant period of time in one of those countries, or grown up among immigrants from those countries, that is the undiluted image they see of Islam. It is unthinkable to them that there might be Muslims who are critical too, who are equally concerned about these issues – if not more so, being more affected by them both in their daily lives and in the wrench it makes on their hearts.

The average American is not thinking daily of Guantanamo Bay, drone strikes over Pakistan, Syria or Somalia, or a whole host of horrors that the USA has inflicted on the rest of the world. They don’t feel responsible for them; those are executive decisions made by a president they might not even have voted for, so how would they feel connected to them? They get up, have breakfast, go to school or work, come home, check out their friends’ news online, watch some TV, play basketball, go out for a meal…

But when a non-American thinks of America, they have the sneering image of Donald Trump seared into their retinas. We read about police brutality, about another ‘lone wolf’ attack at a school/university/abortion clinic, about a woman in Idaho getting 7 years in jail for publicly breastfeeding her baby, about the 13th amendment allowing the continuation of slavery and indentured labour of convicts, or about the real Bowling Green massacre, of native people killed and mutilated in the most hideous ways imaginable. We see viral videos shot on phones of white women screaming abuse at Mexicans in supermarket queues, or black people lying in puddles of blood in the street. We receive such a steady stream of diplomatic idiocy, pedestrian violence and cultural shallowness from the States that my 8 year old son (who doesn’t know the half of it) says he would never go to the place, despite being quarter American himself.

So where does this leave us? It’s easy to conclude that education is the answer, that the light of knowledge blasts away the darkness of ignorance…and although this is true, it’s also hopelessly hopeful. We know full well that most people don’t have the time or inclination to get to know people they have pegged down as murderers and rapists. I could preach til I’m purple in the face about the facts of ‘holy war’ in Islam* but an Isis supporter (or an Islamophobe – I’m seeing a pattern emerging here) would point blank refuse to listen. It’s confirmation bias on a soul-destroying scale.

But I don’t want my soul destroyed, thank you very much. I feel I need to take steps that don’t just involve unfriending someone who persistently posts horrors on Facebook, or teaching my logorithms to feed me more cake baking videos. I believe that all of us who are neck deep in the internet in general need to keep a check on how much time we spend filling out heads with horror, the way I have to police my kids’ screen time so they don’t end up racing to the iPad the second they come home from school and only go out grudgingly when I force them to. We need to be stern parents to the bratty children of our addictions.

‘Everything in moderation’ is, in a funny way, a fairly good analogy for the existence of horror in the world: of course it exists, it is unimaginable for the world to suddenly become all peaches and cream. If it did, people would probably get bored and irritable and start wars just for the hell of it. But look at the 99% of 99% of people’s lives which do go quite alright, actually; think of every bodily process currently going on inside you that you would die or suffer miserably without, and which you don’t pay the slightest attention to. Jackie Onassis’ father had a rare condition in which his eyelids didn’t work, and he had to stick them open with tape: how often do you thank your eyelids for blinking?

We do need to be aware of the horrors, to grieve for the wronged and the oppressed, and to campaign against those wrongs and oppressions. But the world isn’t all horror, and if we lose our perspective on things we’ll end up adding to the polarisation of which Donald Trump is currently the flame-headed figurehead. Write to your MP, march, sign petitions, do whatever you need to do, but don’t let your mind be taken over by images of horror, lest the lens you see the world through be coloured by them.

 
*in a nutshell: that no civilian can ever be targeted, full stop, and that no civilian can kill except in the ridiculously unlikely circumstances that another nation has suddenly invaded their own, overwhelmed their army and arrived at that person’s door, AND if they have the certainty that they will be killed and the women of the house will be raped regardless. This means that war may only legitimately be carried out defensively; NO MILITIA can say they are waging a war in the name of Islam or with religious legitimacy as they are not the army of a globally accepted state, which, for instance, Daesh does not qualify as on various counts. Does it issue visas? No. Apart from which, the methods used in such despicable attacks as suicide bombings are not only incomtrovertibly forbidden in Islam, but also considered accursed. For more see Sheikh Muhammad Al-Akiti’s brief and very readable fatwa, ‘Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless Against the Killing of Civilians” (Aqsa Press, 2005).

 

Postscript: If you are a troll, and -in the ludicrous event that you have read this far – are considering leaving a disturbing comment, you know I’m going to delete them. Try gardening instead: it’s a far more pleasurable way to pass the time.

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Hate Is No Substitute

Don’t touch me with that barge pole.
The disease you fear in me might travel
down your arm through the fibres
of that deceased sliver of tree and
burn a dot on my arm.

Don’t squint at me through that pinhole.
Your face is contorted
all the beauty your mother kissed into it
wrung to angry creases.

Don’t throw darts at me from behind that wall.
Your dartboard lies behind you
inside you
a whole room of
poison-filled balloons
that need puncturing.

You see, I can shake off this shit
before it hardens and turns to
shit-hardened armour
I can soak my blood-sodden
rag of a heart
in rose water
cook it with comfrey
til it stitches itself back together
I can call up cool breezes
to blow away the debris
reveal sand-polished jewels beneath
I can open a window
onto the vacuum created
when intellect left the room
I can rebuilt the city left a
concrete skeleton
for as long as my time runs on

But your time is running out
and every day wasted in
smearing excrescences on your
neighbour’s car window
is another chance for joy
wiped away and
hate is no
substitute.

Before the Removal Men

Beloved friends leave us
keepsakes to remember them by
a curl of their hair in a locket
a scarf that still smells of their sandalwood
but You don’t have hair
or need for neckerchiefs
What You have is Spirit
or what You are is – the knots
words tie tongues in! –
instead, You left a trace of Yourself
in every human’s being
so we could close our eyes
shut our mouths
sink our yearning faces into it
and smell our way back to You

You left in us a doorway
that was once the only place we’d stand
backs turned to the
grimy storeroom of our brains
contemplating only Your garden
but noises from this side distract
furniture gets in the way, bruises shins
boxes of sentimental value build up
each one blocking out that marvellous door
by another cardboard square
until at last we place a wardrobe in front of it
and forget it ever existed
And we only remember
when the house is crumbling
the wardrobe eaten by woodworm
and in the moment the wrecking ball
tears off the roof
that golden opening blinks

God, help us clear away all this junk
before the removal men come
for us

In Joyful Memory of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore

Yesterday my dear friend, mentor and publisher passed away after several years of living with cancer, and a lifetime of prolific writing.

Coming of age in Beatnik California, among contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Laurence Ferlinghetti, he certainly didn’t write for critics or to be nominated any country’s Poet Laureate; rather his life’s mission was, as far as I can tell, to distill the medicinal quintessence of the Middle Eastern/North African spiritual path he had come to in his native tongue, always in the spirit of the utmost personal honesty.

Writing mostly (entirely, even) in the middle of the night, his poems were full of his characteristic whimsy and gravity, dazzling and at times dizzying changes of perspective from the gnat’s to the nova’s, and throughout them a rumination on life and its purpose and its end while, perhaps, peeling potatoes or watching geese fly over a Dutch barn. Here are a few poems on the subject of death I came across today from one of his 50+ works, The Fireater’s Lunchbreak:

DEATH IS COMING

Death is coming
and we’re going to have a

lawn party
though it be winter

I’m going to wear my hat

The wheels of earth are
revolving with a grinding sound

I can make out death’s face
in the mist

How can I believe it
with light all around?

Not even a little door
is needed that’s how fully

dimensional I feel and
green shoots growing in space

everywhere at once
in the winter chill

 

ONE WHITE HAIR

Death is a white hair that lands on our
lapel that can’t be returned to our head

Once we’re cut off from our source
how can we find our way again?

Unperturbed by events that showed us
death’s horrid doorways

the white hair that lands on our lapel
lies silent and still

Once we move off from our starting place
we’re sure to arrive where we’ve never been before

Only God can catch us with sure hands
and bathe us in sudsy waters

The eyes’ windows shut down at death
and His windows open

The heart’s windows are never closed
here or there

One hair alone is enough to show us –
Take heed of that falling hair!

 

LIKE THIS DEATH!

Death you funny old fogy
Death you amorous adolescent
ivy in your hair

Death you ring around the bathtub
Death you perfect slick icicle

Death you pork rind on sizzling bun
Death you bus out of control in the Andes

Death you pop-goes-the-weasel
Death you swansong in the full moonlight

Death you full swoon on an Algiers balcony
Death you sneering policeman caught red handed

Death you slip through a noose
Death you slipknot in a noose

Death you moose looking for breakfast
Death you ripe berry ready to be plucked

Tunnel out the living body into a new body
this time with no earth in it

Under the earth Death
Under the eye of the clock Death

Under God’s watchful Eye Death
in His breath Death His inbreath Death
and His outbreath Death

We are right there at the punch line
we’ve made the ball of light in the air
with our hands and
set it rolling

We are merrily along
hoping for the best death

Owl eye skunk drunk Death
punch drunk puckered over with the Kiss of Death

Smack!

Like this
Death!

 

His influence for meek, toe-deep writers like me was to show that in poetry anything is possible. A paperclip could be the metaphor for union with the Divine, or it could be used to pick the lock to another realm in which cups of coffee sang songs and a snore told fathomless secrets. Or it could just be a paperclip, and isn’t that just the best thing for it to be?

But far from forcing the frontiers of his imagination, he would wait at the limits of it patiently, watching for something to stride out of the Unseen like a snatch of a waking dream, or for the beginning of a story to start telling itself like an old friend recounting an adventure, and one line would lead to another like a silk scarf being pulling from a magician’s hat, until the poem had emerged in full and could wander off on its own, shaking its haunches in the sunlight.

Though his passing is sad, his memory is one of zany humour and enlightening frankness, which is a pretty wonderful legacy to have bequeathed. His website gives an overview of all of his books, with links to purchase them, and it is hoped that there will soon be an anthology for newcomers to his work who don’t know where to start. You can also find an obituary of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore here, written by my dad who had been a friend and fellow traveller on the Sufi path for over forty years.

Bon voyage, ‘Abdal-Hayy, to the other world your soul always belonged in. And apologies for all this soppy stuff, you sweet old bologna loaf.

Love is a Traveller…For Sale Online Now!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that my first collection of poems is now available to buy online here!

LOVE IS TRAVELLER  FC Jan 28  copy

According to the publisher, Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore at Ecstatic Exchange:

“With Medina Whiteman’s lively, metamorphosing voice, we have here finely detailed poetic stances on whatever attracts her and her pen, and her heart is here, and its centripetal ripples edge out to our own world and wash over it as if with our own sensibilities — and it is a welcoming thing, a sweet and healing thing to know these enlightened trails.”

And from a review by Michael Sugich, author of Signs on the Horizons:

“Love is a Traveller and We are Its Path” is an astonishing, accomplished, heartbreakingly beautiful work. Ms. Whiteman writes as a girl, a woman, a mother, and a wide-eyed, reflective observer of her world — as seeker, believer and sage. For her God is truly in the details. Each observation, whether earthy or supernal, is internalized and suffused with a piercing awareness of meaning, and a deep, abiding faith that shines through a world full of mundane and transcendent particulars.”

Ain’t Lateefa Spiker‘s cover art lovely? Here‘s the link to buy a copy yourself and see if you agree with them. Pass on the news, and happy reading!

 

 

 

Duff Eid Trauma

It all starts so well: the night before the celebration, everyone is excitedly ringing family members with their Eid Mubaraks, kids are fantasising about presents (if they haven’t persuaded their parents to open them already), mums are making cakes and shampooing kids ready for the next day.
Come morning, we’re in a red alert state of ironing and preparations (the only time I remember curling my hair is as a kid on Eid), putting on fancy frocks and unusual amounts of make-up, even cracking out the special perfume that never sees the light of day. On the way there everyone’s singing the Eid song, feeling a bit naughty for having the day off school/work, watching for others who are similarly garbed for a party.
The mosque slowly packs out; women start fanning their faces; the general buzz of talking and kissing long-unseen friends abates as the adhan goes for the prayer. There’s a brief moment when the build-up reaches its climax…then, two short rak’ahs later, everyone starts filtering out again, to eat (in our case a curious mish-mash of tortilla de patatas, pretzels and cake – ‘Eid tapas’).

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

And then…the togetherness fizzles out. Everyone drifts off to who knows where, confused by the too-early party preparations, strange mixtures of food and the mad rush of salaams. Some men disappear to slaughter sheep; a few conscientious vegetarians go to distribute cheese sandwiches to the homeless, and others go back to work in this dazed, showered-with-holy-water state.
Those who don’t have huge extended families to celebrate with, i.e. converts, exiles, parents whose children live elsewhere, find themselves adrift, either tagging along like the high school gooseberry to other people’s family gatherings (where they are of course welcomed as brethren, although that might mean they have to peel some potatoes), or clump together in twos and threes and go to cafés where they feel slightly giddy and unnecessarily sequinned. (I’m talking about being in the west, of course, where life goes on as usual around these islands of Islamic celebration.) Then they go home. And then there’s some meat.
This year, living among a vibrant, eclectic, if at times a little bonkers-around-the-edges Sufi community, Eid was eventually a blast. Someone had set up a tent and a generator making ‘Potato Tornadoes’ (fried potato cut into a spiral, on a stick. Yes these things exist.) There were also pony rides for the kids and a Ka’aba making craft workshop and I showed a few kids how to make origami animals, which was also fun, especially as Cavebaby mercifully slept the whole way through. Ali Keeler of Firdaus Ensemble also came down and sang some songs, which some of us managed to join in with, qasida jam style, while Cavebaby sat happily on a friend’s lap. So it was overall a fine time had by all.

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes...those classic Eid icons

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes…those classic Eid icons.

But that initial blip brought back many of these alienating moments from my youth, coined as ‘Duff Eid Trauma’ by a friend. The scenario reminded her of many a duff Christmas, where too many people got too drunk and argued, and the kids’ presents weren’t quite was they wanted, and the turkey got burnt, and the tree shed needles into the sofa, and the dog ate the Christmas pudding and was sick on the pantry floor, and you ended up watching Mary Poppins for the fiftieth time in an atmosphere of tense obligatory cohabitation. It’s the same feeling of anti-climax, only you’re smelling of ‘oud and have too much kohl on for 10 o’clock in the morning. I don’t think anyone’s been quite so depressed from it as after a Duff Christmas, but there’s still this feeling that a wonderful time is being had by someone, in a family home with a halo of warmth and authenticity: the real Eid celebration.
It’s probably poppycock (I’m sure their kids were whining too), but living in a non-Muslim country certainly dims the glow of an Eid celebration. It feels like such an effort to raise an Islamic culture from where there is none that at times I wonder if we’re letting the meaning of it slip through our fingers. Even as a lifelong Muslim I still sometimes get a lingering sense that we’re in fancy dress, doing this ‘Islamic’ thing, that someone will sniff out our secret (that we’re culturally pretty European, actually) and the edifice of our outward religion will turn to mouse droppings.
Thankfully, these are also those times when we have the opportunity to wonder what our inward religion is about. If it’s not in the silver lurex jelabiyahs, or the prominently hanging tasbihs, the frankincense and bukhur or the miswaks, the scarves and turbans and embroidered hats, the prayer mats and the prayer domes and even the Arabic of the prayers we recite, what is it in?

Pomegranate season

Pomegranates: fruits of Paradise, symbols of multiplicity

When we look for the centre of this faith it reveals itself to be a fractal, spiralling in ever more fascinating ways the deeper it pulls us, but with ever fewer details. Cultural forms, interesting as they might be, fall off the edges. This country does this; that country does that. But it’s all peripheral, like the cupboards in the walls of the rabbit hole that Alice falls down on her way to Wonderland.
Before the words had shapes and sounds there were meanings that called them out of the darkness; before the meanings, a primordial call, a homing signal, a desire to work our way back to our source. Each time we rest our wandering feet on things and call them Islam they take us further away, not closer, from the end of this path, the heart of the spiral: Home.

Muslimah at a Public Pool

This is where your invisibility stands out at its starkest. Where teenagers snog in bikinis with recently-inked tattoos in styles that will go out before the summer does, fitness fanatics show off their moves, and even middle-aged couples smooch over the cooler with flesh rolling out of optimistic swimwear, there you are, nervously twitching a sarong over your shoulders because you feel exposed in a one-piece.

The justifications are clear: it’s a heat wave, neither your house nor your car has A/C and driving three kids including a baby who cries every minute of every hot car journey makes it impossible to get any further than the campsite a few minutes’ walk away. Your sanity thus stretched, getting into cold water is not just necessary, it is un-do-without-able. And with this many buttocks on display, modesty is surely relative.

But then there are those who know you are Muslim, and there are questions in their faces and at the edges of their comments. Ah, you must be one of those ‘liberal’ Muslims. You’re a free thinker – you don’t stand for all those poxy old-fashioned chauvinistic rules. You’re one of us!

A shudder goes through me at this thought, at the assumptions carried so blithely through so many minds. To paraphrase Ali G, ‘Is it cos I is white?’ There are priviledges that white Muslims have that most of us aren’t even aware of. I can’t imagine some of my Moroccan friends daring to go to a public swimming pool when their parents would hit the roof if they did. But there’s this creepy camaraderie that you get with white non-Muslims when you aren’t hijab’ed to the eyeballs. It’s as if they are saying, ‘You’re OK. They haven’t got you completely. You’ve still got one foot in our territory.’

It makes me laugh to think how infuriating it is to have to scroll down the list of countries on one of those countless petition websites to find United Kingdom (or United States, for that matter). What are we doing down there, after Afghanistan, Barbados, Togo and all those random islands in the South Pacific no-one has even heard of? Shouldn’t they just put us at the top, so we don’t have to spend all those nano-seconds scrolling down, reminding ourselves that the rest of the world exists? Good grief, our thumbs get tired!

Tangent over. This is a just a late-night snapshot of my two-cultured brain, on the one hand glad that I can pop to the shops without covering my head and worrying that Muslims will think less of me (I live in a very open-minded community), and yet cringing when I do cover my head and people stop me to ask questions, or corner me into describing where my faith lies on the liberal-conservative spectrum. If I’m hijab-less because I’m pressured into not wearing it, does that really mean I am free?

What strikes me as being on of Islam’s greatest strengths is that when it really comes down to it, no-one can judge anyone else on their faith at all. ‘Allahu ‘Alim’; only Allah knows. And how are the people of Paradise described in Qur’an, over and over? ‘Alladhina amanu wa ‘amilu salihat’: those who believe and do good works. It doesn’t even qualify them as Muslims, or having a religion at all. Is that not the most progressive, out-there kind of religion there is?

You wouldn’t believe it if you read the news (and I am boycotting it: I don’t want to feed horror stories into my baby’s mouth though my milk). But the news has never been an accurate reflection of the way the world is, only pinpricks of horror in the vast fabric of normality that are gathered together to make us see nothing but a fistful of blood. It’s isn’t reality at all, only shock waves filtered through journalists’ lenses, managed by editors whose salaries are paid by advertisers who want readers to be kept agog by more and more horror. We have to keep reminding ourselves to lift our heads from our newsfeeds and stay present: no website will represent reality to you better than your own eyes.

And in the same way I have to remind myself that onlookers don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface of me, veiled or otherwise, and I don’t know what going on under theirs, either. Good people still carry prejudices unawares: people with prejudices can still be good people. My ideas of what they ought to think are still only my ideas, and may well be wrong anyway. God guide us. Amin.

Dear Bigot

Dear bigot
– sigh –
when you appear on TV
or write your editorials
or seize a woman’s hijab and deafen her
with a tirade on her lack of British values
– how very British of you! –
dear bigot, don’t you see?
The more strenuous your conviction
of Islam’s threat to humanity
the more your knowledge is shown to be phony,
your intellect imprisoned.
We can see it flailing about in there
behind a stiff, dyspeptic exterior
that flushes green at overt expressions of
Muslimness.
How many times a week do you have
falafels and batata harra
at the home of your Muslim neighbour?
When was the last time you popped into
Abdul’s Islamic Supplies
– undaunted by the white manniquins
in their sequin-encrusted abayas –
and stayed for a chai and a chat?
When you complain that Muslims aren’t
outraged enough about Isis,
count how many Muslims
you have befriended who might
litter your newsfeed with their grief.
We’re not just good for driving your buses,
for amalgaming your cavities
and selling you fags.
There’s a whole world
behind the undifferentiated
Islamic-hued masses
and for all you crow about
how deeply you’ve studied the subject
read those editorials
watched those war zone clips
tell me if you’ve ever asked
a flesh-and-blood Muslim what they think,
how they live, who they are.
Without those voices
your condemnations are
a drone strike on an unseen village
by a 19-year-old video game junkie
with a lethal excess of patriotism.
What does your myopia make you?
An ostrich, or a mole?
Look how your heart has been papier-mâchéd
with pages of The Telegraph!
Break out, dear bigot!
You aren’t so monstrous under all that crust,
and nor are we. See us:
we are human.
Allow room for our failings
and we can forgive your blindness, too.
We are only trying
still trying
always trying
to make things better.

(A poem prompted by this article by Juan Cole in The Nation.)

To Be Heard and Held

In the past 5 years of blogging, directing my thoughts world-wards through this silent megaphone on a screen, I’ve almost always been blissfully ignored by the self-appointed wardens of Islamic values that skulk the internet. Either this means I’m not being inflammatory enough, or (and this is a vain hope of mine) they are put off by the prospect of an online verbal evisceration. I’m quite happy not to be on their radar, though; anything for a quiet life.

Unfortunately, however, every time it seems that Muslims might be doing something interesting on the world stage, the condemnations start pouring in.

In a behind-the-scenes video she shot for the new film American Sharia, Yaz the Spaz (I’m guessing she doesn’t know what this means in the UK, unless she’s trying to wrong-foot her detractors by insulting herself first) receives a few brave hurrahs in the comments section, before a whole barrage of strangers inform her in various tones of indignation that she was “too close to the men”, that the film did not represent true Islam, and – that classic put-down written by people on their iPads while on the Tube on their way to work in a merchant bank – “this isn’t what the Sahabah would have been doing”.

Whilst silently suppressing the screams of frustration, it is important that we avoid responding with the same kind of blinkered reactions, and instead endeavour to understand that human psychology is, much like our DNA, 90% identical to that of a carrot. The other 10% depends on whether anyone ever allowed you to play with dangerous implements as a child.

Carrot.

A carrot.

This is the memo that it seems the trolls missed: Moralising, judging, attacking, or condemning to the most scorching regions of hell DOES NOT ACHIEVE THE DESIRED EFFECT of changing a person’s ways any more than telling elephants to stop being large and wrinkly turns them into mice.

People are too stubborn for that. We have good reason to be. Can you imagine if you changed your entire direction in life, your approach to God, humanity and the universe, every time someone told you the way you were meant to think? We’d be bouncing back and forth across the squash court of spirituality all our lives.

See? Being stubborn makes you happier.

See? Being stubborn makes you happier.

Much as it’s annoying to be a parent to intractable children when you’re trying to get them to sit in their car seat and put their belt on for the fifth time in a day, if you put yourself in their position, you’d kick up a fuss yourself. They’re only practising for being a teenager and having to stick up for themselves; you’ll appreciate their wilfulness when they refuse to obey whatever the alpha (fe)male of their class tells them to do.

There is the even more annoying possibility that the person doing the reprimanding might be absolutely right. The point, however, is that shoving their rightness down another person’s throat won’t make them swallow it. (Much more problematic is when it isn’t certain that they are right, only that their conviction makes them feel horribly offended when you don’t collapse at their feet with sobs of gratitude for their kind advice.)

This might just be a case of culture shock: being brought up in Britain among people who shudder at the idea of being thought bossy or rude, when I travelled to places such as Morocco, Kenya and Saudi Arabia it became clear that a lot of people had an opinion on how I should dress, eat, talk, pray, chew gum, wear flip-flops etc., and that they took it as a moral duty, like a doctor travelling to Sierra Leone to fight ebola, to stamp out my silly foreign tendencies.

I smiled and nodded so much I almost wore my face and neck muscles right through. Then I went back to England and revelled in being able to wear whatever I liked much more than before.

Free to be furry

Free to be furry.

How might those well-meaning bossypants have transmitted their pearls of wisdom in a way that would have stuck? Taking time to become friends, being an example of what they believe is right, educating through humour, thoughtfully exploring why certain behaviours are better (and we need to ask ourselves what ‘better’ means – more in line with the status quo, or more conducive to happiness?)…all these might have been helpful, and shown a good deal more adab (the Islamic concept of good manners).

But in extreme cases of obstinacy, like my own, I have come to the conclusion that the only remedy is unconditional acceptance. Compassion melts away defenses like ice before fire. You don’t need an itemised list of your sins read out to you: all you need is to feel accepted despite them. The Muslims I met who taught me more about Islam than anyone else were the ones who did no preaching whatsoever, but instead welcomed me with open arms, showed trust and generosity and care without even knowing how to speak my language, and forgave whatever breaches of their cultural codes I made.

That is merely a reflection of my experience of Allah: an all-encompassing embrace of care and kindness, even though I’ll never be up to scratch. And that is why, despite the trolls and the fundamentalists, despite Da’esh and lone wolf attacks, this feeling of being heard and held casts everything else into the shadows. The only way I can bear those shadows is by remembering the warmth of the light.

For Sense or Silence

Painted truck from Pakistan. Via www.creativeroots.org

Painted truck from Pakistan. Via http://www.creativeroots.org

If the Ummah is one body
then we are all brittle bones
skins grown armoured
out of fear of speared looks.
Meanwhile collapsing organs
leave lacunae in their wake
hollows that cringe and cramp
and invite hauntings.
Our veins have dried to desert rivers
joints arthritically creak
only so far, shaking at the idea
of stretching any more.
Between the mummified exterior
and the limping core
there is an emptiness
that reaches for union
sighs for solidity
whistles like hilltop pines
for sense or silence.
My voice is called to sing into this void
this fantastic concert hall denied of concerts
stifled by a plaster casing
created to protect
but the wounds need air;
our bandages are soaked through now –
to keep them on we risk
a gangrene on our souls.
Listen quietly as you unwind them:
there is music in the rattling of our bones
in the weeping of our tissues
in the way we scrape our heels
along the ground.
It joins the leaves’ percussion in the wind
the insects’ string section out on the lawn
the whispering of oranges as they grow juice
the sparrows chittering coded melodies and the
deep heaving of planets
drawing harmonies out of space –
that is a song to get us up and dancing again.
Quivering brings vibrato
to our parched throats – trembling
makes the timbre believable
and words that rise
unwritten in that loss
score our hymn.

In memory of the lives lost in Peshawar and with heartfelt prayers for a peaceful holiday season for all.