Love Her And She Will

Woman jumble sale

Each woman is a jumble sale

a riotous clash of

obsolete cassettes

that hold nostalgic value

holey socks and too-small

suede jackets that would look good

if only…if her body were…

(still, the thought of looking fly in it

was worth every penny.)

And you, male browser,

scanning through her

chipped gravy boats

scuffed pumps

retro plastic sunglasses

that still make her grin to wear them

– but really, how much cargo

can this camel lug around? –

you, oh male peruser,

have the choice whether to scorn

her history of bad taste and saunter

off in search of more impressive tat

or

to riffle patiently through her EPs

and cheesy paperbacks

(remembering that this is just the junk

she’s willing to show the public)

and chance upon that rare 1880s

engraved silver compass

she was always looking for

someone to give to

and the glow in your eyes

appreciating it

turns all the trinkets into treasure

at the feet of a queen.

Don’t you see, oh male desirer?

It is your admiration

that draws out her beauty.

She see your delight

and opens the box

hidden under the foldout table

full of more wondrous things

the ones she didn’t want to muddle up

with the broken fake Rolexes.

Don’t you see, oh male

seeker of the sublime?

She embodies it

when she feels your awed gaze

lighting her up in a corona.

Just as He said,

“I am in the opinion of My servant”,

want only this Beauty

and she will dazzle you with it.

Love her

and she will give you

reason to.

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.

Two States

Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.

The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
working glitchlessly
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.

The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.

The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
hidden aquifers
and while my hands are
pairing socks
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
earth-to-be
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
edible gemstones
the ore of that ground called home.

The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.

Gravity for Letters

What passes for patience
is a chessboard click of rooks
prim smiles with unlifted eyes
while tides of bile rise up:
the player’s lava. Boiled rock
clots up your sluices
if it doesn’t find an aperture
a slit in underwater earth
from which a stream of gas escapes
as bubbles, hot enough for crabs
or – better yet – a brazen hole
from which to rain down smoking
boulders over unsuspecting towns
with a belch of ill-digested
feeling. My cascades of ash and pumice,
are directed into hollow caverns
carved by quills
where they tumble on feet and heads
serifs and dots hot off the press
like iron brands of olden days
to stamp the blank white
paper landscape.
Here there’s no need for sweet ‘pleases’
and ‘thankyous’, underbrimming with
cantankerous intents
only a playground for words to skitter in
swing off branches, crash and crumble
knock each other senseless
til some sense emerges, breathless,
floating out of its own crushed importance
laughing, light-headed and happy
for the loss of its gross weight.
Gravity is overrated when
you are a letter.

Living Room In Palestine

I speak with Palestine on Skype
from a dining table in East London
an Arab friend in Israel
translates a tourism brochure while I type
in Arabic so slow my fingers creak
her living room is brightly lit
a three-month old baby squeals
in another room while we discuss the right word
for pergolas and romantic
the agaves that Lorca called petrified octopi
and lanterns in Granada’s Moroccan quarter

Our sadness flits behind outbursts
of geraniums on balconies
hides in vaults of the Alhambra and hammams
flavours olives, avocados and almond cakes
things brought to Spain by Muslims
who were then crammed into a province
as populous as the rest of Spain put together
and finally exiled, massacred or muted

Now an airplane flies over her village
a fragment of Palestine in the middle of Israel
my heart stops for a second that lasts years
but she goes on looking up words
the dictionary pages lisp
and the adhan goes for ‘isha
loudspeaker overpowering our work
for a minute that I wish
would last an eon

We return to Sacromonte and prickly pears
armoured sweetness loaded with seed shrapnel
Palestine as far away as news reports
and distant as home

Three Translucent Fans

It might seem, from the digital distance of the internet, that the Cave has been pretty quiet of late. From this side of the screen, however, it’s been a time of intense internal activity, which I have cunningly disguised as laziness.

Various family crises, housing disasters, veterinary emergencies, bureaucratic worries and work woes combined into a whirling maelstrom of angst, which left me fairly convinced that if I’d gone to a doctor I would have been put on some strong medication. Thank God I had no health insurance and therefore didn’t have the choice.

 Big dog, big vet bills.

Thus a month of near-lunacy culminated in a trip up to Alqueria de Los Rosales, a conference centre complete with mosque (designed by my very own padre) and lodgings in a remote, starkly beautiful corner of the Granada province. The attraction was a retreat organised by my favourite fellow Cavepeople, Rumi’s Cave. Sheikh Babikir and Imam ‘Abdul-Lateef Finch were there to blast gibbering wrecks like myself back into shiny shape again through the medium of dhikr. By the time I left I felt free again, impervious to fear and stress; I felt like a ghoul whose hand had been constantly clutching at my throat had now been banished back to the underworld.

‘Adhkurni fa-adhkurkum’, so the Qur’an tells us: ‘Remember Me and I will remember you’. Pretty straightforward it would seem. It’s the antithesis of the current climate of ultra-distractability; you don’t need me to start listing websites – you know the prime culprits. Why are we suckers for it, when FB does such spectacularly insensitive acts as deliberately manipulating the positive or negative content of nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds in an experiment to see if they would post more negative or positive posts?

We citizens of the Internetic Republic are dimly aware of the way in which Flabberbook uses our self-created profiles to ‘teach’ advertisers how to market to us better, yet the entertainment value of a Friskies advert in which an older cat introduces the new kitten to the bad monster ‘Vac-cuum’ blots out our outrage, and we’re back to skimming through endless amounts of other peoples’ suggestions (some of which are so good that we keep going back again in the hopes of more). Horror at some story about kids in a refugee camp is swiftly replaced by cooing over a friend’s new baby. The margins of our emotional experience narrow; the world is siphoned into a stream of information that seems ever blander; the highs and lows are cycled through with an ever increasing numbness.

So remembrance – dhikr – works as a kind of unseen Fairy liquid on the congealed fat of our consciousness, biting through it to the clear Pyrex of our souls with unbeatable efficiency (do one get 70,000 rewards free!). You could term it mindfulness, too; either way you are retreating from the illusion on the periphery – of past and future, out there on the antipodes of our horizons – to the centre of the circle, to the present, to reality, that mind-bendingly beautiful Divine space.

Just before leaving for the Rumi’s Retreat, a friend, on hearing for the nth time my sorrows, simply said: ‘It’s just a reminder to stay present in your heart.’ A very Sufi statement one might say, or a New Age one; but labels don’t do justice to the sense of this approach. For a lot of us, it’s easier said than done, though. ‘How do I go back into my heart?!’ the mind wails, banging on the bars of the cage it built for itself. But it isn’t something that can be done mentally. Jabbering thoughts have to stop for a while for you to see that you don’t simply disappear off the map when you stop thinking, as Descartes must have imagined we did. 

Once you quiet the white noise of worry (or nostalgia, or mulling over negative thoughts, or just chattering away to yourself after having a coffee like my brain does), there’s the most exquisite expansiveness. There’s peace. There doesn’t have to be someone taking a selfie of them feeling peaceful – it’s just the peace, that’s all there is.

Poised on the brink of something big.

Poised on the brink of something big.

 

I was reminded of this deep, oceanic calm, and the phenomenally creative potential within in, when facilitating a poetry workshop at the Rumi’s retreat, together with Abbas Zahedi, head honcho of Rumi’s Cave in North London. There is so much to be said about literary form, information I don’t retain well and find myself itching to subvert at the next opportunity. Most classes that ‘teach’ poetry get stuck straight into spondees before you can say ‘iambic pentametre’.

But before the writing begins, there is a kind of pre-poetry that has to be found. It’s the same vast, unpredictable inner space that dhikr generates, that you experience in dreams, that becomes plain in meditation or prayer (at least, when you don’t have your kids hanging off you while you’re trying to pray). You don’t get there by memorising techniques or following arbitrary rules: every person has their own shortcut there, and they need to find their own way to it. (You can find some of my favourite writing prompts to get you off the diving board and into water here.)

It is always extraordinary to see people who regard themselves as beginners, as non-writers, dip their toes into these tremendous waters within, slowly build up confidence, and finally plunge their heads under, coming up with pearls. There is nothing like it for me, and the work produced is of an amazing quality: frank, curious, observant, wise.

Any old thing can be the springboard for this process, but you need confidence to know that it doesn’t matter what you come up with. Sometimes it’ll be nothing but an old boot, a baked bean can, a broken tile, a bicycle wheel, a bone. They’re all specimens of something surprising and somehow meaningful, in the way that dreams often sound like gibberish to anyone else but to the dreamer they tell a story.

Amazing what you might find down there.

Amazing what you might find down there.

And it’s surprising how good the the formal aspect of the writing often is, quite intuitively. But even if it isn’t, no matter. You can spend weeks planning out the design of a dress, but without the raw materials you’ll never get one made. To take another analogy, all the strongest tomato plants in my garden grew by themselves out of a well-tended compost heap. Give your subconscious some oxgyen and you’ll be astounded at what will come out of it

So these three lenses of my world have folded over one another like translucent fans, each one pointing in to the same message: come back to your centre. Anxiety and social media are just significantly more irksome variations on the lesson given by dhikr: come back to your centre. The glitter and drama of the world beyond is alluring but it’s a shimmering screen which dies the moment the plug is pulled on it. Come back! Come back to your core! Nothing else will ever seem so alive again.

I’ll be doing more workshops over the summer, kindling creativity all over the UK (details on workshops to come – stay tuned for more info). If you would like me to do one at your school, community centre or other venue please email me on medinatenourwhiteman (@) gmail (dot) com. Ramadan Kareem!

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.

On One Line

Books have become my butterflies
alive for just one day or less
before the surf of routine comes
crashing down overhead
raising my feet
from ocean bed
helterskeltering along
the pages soaked
and distant.

These beings are reincarnated
every time I snatch
a moment’s
breath
released from their oceanic
suspension
open, new again
the plots and connections
different this time.

Books have become a bus stop
scratched with teenage loves
willing the passerby to want
to flee their own lives for an hour
a day, a night journey
to foreign towns, a round trip
when the back page flips shut –
but I always miss
the transport.

Books have become my hoopoes
trilling some way off, a
flash of black and white
too fluttersome to stay whenever
I approach.
Gone!
Perhaps I’ll catch a feather.

And on one feather I can fly
hit thermals so high even one line
would make me a kite and glide
over terrains no-one will ever see but I.

On just one letter I could ride to
caverns, canyons, cascades
altitude lakes blue as eyes
dry, red-streaked rocks and corporeal dunes
spruce forests so dense sounds
would fight to reach our ears
clearings where stand in moonlight
roundhouses of polished wood
in which I find circles of lovers
of the Word.

They must exist!
And I am going
by any vehicle
necessary
to find them.

Zende Creative Retreat, April 2014

Aside

Most of you are more used to reading my rambles about spooning porridge out of my kids’ hair or a flash of insight had whilst shearing sheep…but I would just like to take a moment to mention a beautiful new project I’m currently working on.

For many years I have toyed with the idea of running a retreat in Spain, aimed at (but not exclusive to) Muslims of a spiritual bent who wish to explore their creative depths in an open-minded, relaxing and enjoyable way.

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A few months ago, a dear sister, poet, writer and photographer Ni’mah Nawwab came to a town near where I live for a writing retreat, and came to stay for a few days afterwards. As well as her beautiful company, her enthusiasm for a poetry retreat in Órgiva got me making some moves on this dream…

…and Zende Creative Retreats was born!

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For a small town, there is an absurd amount of untapped artistic talent here. Two master calligraphers, musicians, artists, poets…and in this setting of outstanding natural beauty, where a walk can take you to natural springs, waterfalls, ruined Moorish castles and watchtowers, through gnarled cork oak forests or up green slopes with views of the sea, it is understandable that many people might find this place the scene of great inspiration.

Drawn by the abundance of the natural surroundings, the good food and (very importantly for us Brits) the sunshine, this valley is blessed with seekers from all different walks of life. And as Muslims we find a connection here to a Western Islamic civilisation that brings us a new understanding of who we are. The footprints of Spanish Muslims who lived here barely 500 years ago seem only just beneath the surface of the soil. In the language, the food, the customs, the agricultural traditions – there is still a subtle but tangible presence of Islam here in the south of Spain. Perhaps this is the closest we come to a homeland.

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Yet it is so easy to get lost in nostalgia, in grieving for golden times past. It is clear that this spirit needs to be maintained in something contemporary, something we can relate to, something alive…

Zende, meaning ‘alive’ in Persian, is the gathering that so many of us have been longing for. Zende Creative Retreats are unique in the field of study-abroad holidays, as a primarily creative experience designed to cater to Muslim interests while maintaining a universal and open attitude to all guests, from all backgrounds.

Pommes de Granada

Pommes de Granada

What is it that makes us feel alive? For many of us it can be felt through our spirituality, our search for (and discovery of) meaning in the strange, at times incomprehensible world we live in. When events fall into some sort of order, when we perceive harmony even through our difficulties, a light opens up through the darkness.

But these moments of insight often seem rarer than a pearl in a Big Mac. Surely there’s something we can do, some activity to calm our minds while we dive within to find to pearl we’re looking for?

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In our experience, writing calligraphy and poetry do just that, filling us with peace and reminding us of the beauty inherent in nature, in life, in our own selves. So much confusion and pain can be transmuted into a work of art or literature that not only gives tremendous enjoyment to the artist but also to those receiving it.

To complement the brief but packed programme of calligraphy and poetry, led by facilitators Asghar Alkaei Behjat, Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, Ni’mah Nawwab and myself, we have scheduled yoga at dawn, led by highly experienced instructor Monica Poyato, and walks in the mountains with Ahmad Zaruq Summers of the Granada-based tour company Al-Andalus Experience. This offers us a way to leave the classroom and incorporate our physical selves into the creative experience, as well as providing a great deal of inspiration for our work.

Abdal Hayy bio pic

We are blessed to have the poet ‘Abd al-Hayy Moore coming all the way from Philadelphia to speak about poetry and give us a performance of his work. Ebullient, funny and inspiring, ‘Abd al-Hayy comes from the Beat generation of poets from 1960s California, and has been something of a pioneer in the field of contemporary Western Sufi poetry.

There will also be a chance for retreat guests to perform a few of the pieces they have worked on in the course of the weekend on the last day alongside the phenomenal Ali Keeler and Firdaus Ensemble and some of the workshop facilitators.

To put our landscape into perspective we’ll have a talk on Andalusi history, with particular focus on the great writers and thinkers who have contributed to classical and even modern thought, by Tahira Larmore, who is currently working on a travel guide to Muslim Spain for Turath Publishing. And if you thought that Persian calligraphy was out of place in Spain, this is when you’ll discover just how much Persian influence there was in Andalusi culture!

We’ll also have a Qasida singing workshop given by ‘Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, giving us a rare opportunity to take the ecstatic poems we’ve worked on in calligraphy and learn to sing them.

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The weekend comes to a climax with a visit to the Alhambra palace, one of the great wonders of the world and the site and inspiration of many a poem. Guests who wish to extend their trip can also choose to visit Cordoba before the retreat and/or extend their stay in Granada afterwards.

The programme, bios of the facilitators and details on booking your place on the retreat can all be found by clicking here to visit the website.

From all the Zende Creative team, we wish you a beautiful start to 2014 and hope to see you for some artistic adventure!

Poem on Little Sleep

I walked into town naked
rode the bus naked
gave a public address naked
improperly ended conversations naked
in nightmare mornings caught trains
at chilly stations naked
bought croissants naked
sent emails naked
– they won’t guess –
enlisted male help
when I locked myself out naked
everyone must be so well-bred
to gaze down instead
pretend a cotton guard
defends the naked backs and legs
breaths down a neck exposed
although I take precautions
wrap round cloth printed with
distracting themes
an amulet against the demon gleam
of touchable flesh
but what shines through is
more touchable still
no cell involved nor nerve
but penetrating to the quick
there comes a sight that sometimes
takes a long-cut through
human perception
just to share the ride
defies the laws of physics
this eye needs no bundle of optic fibres
it’s connected in a million strands to
visions scattered in unseen lands
and seeing has no nationalist pride
seeing itself sees itself
seeing itself sees through all this
all these borders of dirt and cloth
needs no permission to raise veils
any more than we need to
ask ourselves for permission
to undress
any more than a hand would need
to ask permission right before
it grabs yours as the floor gives way
there are no rights to clamour for when all is almost lost
and when was anything
ever safe?
We protest our innocence naked
with guilt bruising our ribs
extol our brilliance naked
with doubt in weals on arms and hips
proclaim nobility naked
with weakness red on fingertips
notorious on our lips
perhaps our dignity’s eclipse
goes unseen to some eyes
but I know there is One who
sees right through it.