The Inner Baby and Tweetaholism

It seems I have been singing so many qasidas* lately that new depths of my own vanity, ambition, immaturity, wounded pride and overall silliness are being clarified, like ghee simmering over a low heat.

Firstly there are the ambitions that don’t seem to disappear no matter how many steps closer I come, no matter how many achievements trickle into my life. It seems I’m not content to be the mother of three utterly hilarious beautiful creative inventive intelligent healthy beings (ALHAMDULILLAH!), nor that I am a writer as I’ve wanted to be since age 6, living in a beautiful place with no drizzle, and a community of amazing open-minded people who occasionally provide amusement with their bizarre antics.

No, there is always something else, always some other challenge that sets my jaw a-champing…and like a blindfold hamster believing it is going forward to some wondrous destination I am still always looking into an imaginary future where I’ll finally feel fulfilled by this, that or the other accolade.

Digging into this curious state of affairs I am finding that there is a very deep, childish sort of wound still being nursed by my unconscious being that lies behind my need to ‘be better’, one which goes back so far it has no visual clues to it, only a vague, pervasive, unsettling pain. My mother tells me that after my sister was born I refused to let her hug me for two years, just going all stiff (I was two at the time – I hasten to add that we have since become very close loving sisters, although it did take 22 years or so to get there).

It’s not like I was a neglected child – I was a longed-for baby who (according to my mum) received all the attention and adoration she could lavish on me, which was perhaps why it was such as shock when I was no longer the littlest one of the family. There is a photo of my mum holding my baby sister, aged 1 day, with our dear late grandmother cooing over them, and me in the foreground grimacing into the camera. She still bears a tiny scar on her cheek from where I was meant to kiss her as a baby but scratched her instead.

Could it really be that such an ancient, primary experience as losing first place in my parents’ affections has stayed with me all this time, morphing with age and accreting defenses to hide behind? Seeing how intensely my children react to seemingly small things like one getting 5 minutes more on the iPad than the other (these are the times we’re living in), I can imagine it might.

The emotions of children are all the more intense because they have no easy means of expressing themselves, other than through screaming or throwing things. The difficulty for us Brits is that such behaviour is generally totally out of the question, even if you’re 2. I suspect a lot of us have bottled up these pre-verbal angers and upsets, which have fermented over time and now provide a rich vintage of putrified infantile ire.

This then spirals forward into the present, either being channelled into other angers (xenophobia, racism, hating on Jeremy Corbyn…whatever’s the fad of the moment) or laying the foundations for a sensitivity to any similar kind of hurt (abandonment, isolation, criticism…).

Which makes me wonder this: is our collective attention-seeking, expressed through social media, merely an adult expression of the primary infantile experience of the loss of the mother’s adoring gaze, bathing her newborn in total love and devotion, making it sense that it is completely cared for and – well – interesting? Is this the root of the neediness that compels people like myself to perform, to ‘share’ compulsively, including on confessional blog posts like this one? Are we really just longing for the primordial breast??

So that is the resumé of my thoughts tonight. Facebook should be renamed Breastbook. The end.

*Sufi songs of love and longing for God, like the ones found in this book, which you need to buy: https://ianwhiteman.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/the-diwan-a-new-translation/

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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

Here is the News (That Never Happened)

Oh, the peculiar fears I carry around with me.

A black and green dirty rucksack, for example, deposited on the floor by an empty table where I sit to have my coffee that gets me thinking: who does it belong to? I ask around politely, and nobody knows. Could – and this is the very first possibility that springs to mind – someone have left it there with a bomb inside?

This is how my imagination works. Let´s just say I can get quite creative with my paranoias. So I begin calculating what kind of rucksack a terrorist would use to leave a bomb in this haven of depravity – I mean, cake shop – in Plaza Larga, Granada. Would it be a slightly grubby one, like this specimen? You´d think that such a decisive moment in the life of a hardcore extremist would warrant a bit of spit and polish. Isn´t there something in the suicide bomber´s handbook that regulates nice, neat backpacks in order to avoid raising suspicions? Or it is more suspicious to carry a brand spanking new rucksack?

 

Already exhausted with these worries – which have raced through my head in the time it takes to open a packet of sugar – I start to think, if it is an explosive device, I am the nearest person to it. I´ll be obliterated. Balls. I should´ve sat round the other side of the biscuit display.

I wonder at the irony of it, a Muslim woman being the first one obliterated by a supposedly Islamic poke in the eye of Western consumerism. Damn those walnut-embellished cookies! Just thinking about the decadence of this chocolate-encrusted institution would make the average al-Qaeda neophyte turn crimson with fury. The irony, of course, is that they would see me, with my long blonde locks shamelessly exposed and assorted prints and patterns and fringed knits, looking more like a walking circus act than the kind of subdued woman they expect Muslim women to be, and I would be lumped in with all the other infidels.

Yet I would rather run that (admittedly infinitessimally small) risk than to succumb to the fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t. What I fear most is to wear my fear as a cape, not in order to protect my precious body from the rapacious gazes of the barbarian hordes, but for fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t.

Whichever way I turn, fear stands with its steel toe-capped boots blocking the doorway, an amalgam of Hollywood psychopaths (as Wednesday Addams said to explain her lack of a Halloween costume, “I´ve come as a homicidal maniac. They look like everyone else”), a cartoon demon, a cardboard ghoul, a carjacking kidnapper, an ideological lunatic bent on purging the world of evil by, er, blowing it up, and, inexplicably, my high school P.E. teacher, Ms Haversham.

All of these fears are constantly bubbling, morphing, accreting new dimensions with every newspaper I read, evolving into a vaster and more powerful tyrant with every day I allow it to reign.

The craziest thing of all is that all of these fears are completely and utterly hypothetical. I have never personally been kidnapped, or murdered by a Samurai sword wielding teeange mob, or blown to smithereens by anti-Westernisation madmen. I have never even been verbally condemned by a Muslim man for my Western appearance; on the contrary, being an Anglo-American Muslim sometimes generates a little too much interest for my liking.

 All of my fears are completely illogical, but the subconscious does not respond to logic unless you pin it down and shine a 1,000 candlelight torch down its throat. Until I do that, my head will continue to be the most dangerous place in the world.

In the meantime, a stubbly, student-type young man comes out of the loo, picks up his rucksack and leaves. The safety of my immediate surroundings remain unviolated. A million tiny acts of disinterested generosity, kindness, and love take place undocumented all over the world, while I have spent twenty minutes running through a worst case scenario so improbable that I am more likely to be struck by lightning whilst playing a flute on a mountaintop. Dressed as a blueberry.

Psychological studies show that bad news is more memorable than good news. So the 99% of the time in which no violent theft is taking place, no verbal abuse being slung, no building blown up, no airplane hijacked, no child bullied, no alien invasion happening, are not documented in any way. It just isn´t as interesting. That 99% of events remains, like the 99% of people with 1% of the wealth, anonymous.

I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule of non-newsworthy events to read this article, in which no brains were devoured by zombies, no old ladies were killed in their homes by burglars, and absolutely no animals were harmed in any way. Thankyou. Feel free to carry on living your lives, a little bit happier, I hope, for them to be non-newsworthy.

Sieving Metaphors out of Concrete: the Battle between One and All

I’m still bothered about this Shafelia Ahmed killing. After 4 hours sleep I’m already buzzing. There is something huge that needs to be said about it, so if you don’t mind me burbling on, here goes.

There is a fundamental imbalance at work in belief communities – whether they be religious or political – all around the world. It’s a tug-of-war that goes back perhaps to our earliest experiences of human society, a tug-of-war between the well-being and growth of the group (which individuals are dependent on for their own safety), and the well-being and integrity of the individual (each one of whom makes up the whole).

I could rummage around for hours looking for ‘expert’ quotes on this matter but I don’t think there’s any need – we can see it all around us, all the time. A society clique has its own interests at heart, so people instinctively take on its ‘dos and don’ts’ and most of them will not cross the line for fear of being cast out of the gang.

This is totally primordial. We might not remember it but there was a time when wild animals threatened our live and there was safety in numbers. But the bigger the group is, the more difficult it is to maintain any kind of homogeneity; greater differences of space and time give rise to variances in culture and language. Our climates and landscapes offer us different challenges.

When there is a hierarchical power structure, or just a lot of people with enough will or need to maintain the group intact, repressive tactics begin to emerge. Dissent, whether it be in the form of a teenage schoolgirl wanting to have a boyfriend or a group of social activists campaigning for change, is suppressed – sometimes violently.

This is when the balance between group and individual has been thrown out of whack, and it’s given us Communism, Fascism, repressive Muslim regimes, and vigilante acts like ‘honour killings’. The sacredness of life is subjugated to the survival of the group.

There have always been, in the history of every tribe, pioneers who sense the need for movement, be it through a change in physical conditions (a spring dries up, so they have to move), or disagreements with elders, or simply the overpopulation of a group and the need for fresh space. So a smaller group splinters off and finds a new way – but this doesn’t necessarily mean they cut their ties with their old group, or that they suddenly give up their language and customs.

Humanity is in constant flux. Historical linguistics shows a fascinating story of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, a place where few written languages have long histories and so the movement of people and the interfaces between cultures are tracked by words that have been borrowed and grammatically absorbed by one or other of the 2,000 languages indigenous to Africa. Few languages are used ideologically; you don’t lose your language when you move upcountry – it evolves.

But when this idea of movement and flux is applied to religion and politics, infuriatingly often we find that a shell of customs, ideas and dogmas handed down from one generation to another becomes encrusted over people and they cannot think creatively enough to see when conditions have changed and so modes de vie also must.

The spirit of Islam is finding the ‘Middle Path’ (not unlike Buddhism); the Prophet Muhammad (s.) always advocated looking for a intermediate path between two extremes. The extremes in his day were a diseased kind of tribalism and religious zeal. Today there is a different disease, composed of fashion, market forces, hype, spin and consumerist herd thinking; today’s religious zeal can now be seen in extreme adherence to one’s patria, religion, racist ideology, political party, football team…the tribes are proliferating all the time.

In the first extreme, behind a smokescreen of development and progress there is deep, grave injustice. Children and young mothers forced to work in mines so people in consumerist societies can buy new technology. Children sold to sweatshops to sew sequins onto dresses. Indigenous peoples displaced from their homelands so the natural resources in them can be pillaged. All of this happens so that certain priviledged individuals can have the freedom to buy whatever they want (or are encouraged to want), whenever they want. This is neo-liberal capitalism. This is extreme individualism.

On the other hand, there is the weight of tradition, sometimes (or often) woven and warped into a heavy helmet of you-must-think-this and you-must-do-that, otherwise you will be harming or disrespecting your group in some way. The alternative, for these people, is a dangerous individualism; the threat of losing their identity as a member of that group is so great that they consent to horrific abuses taking place in the name of Nazism, Communism, tribal culture or a repressive Islamic state. In a way, both extremes are nothing more than herd mentality.

The founding principle of Islam, of balance and harmony over chaos, is absolutely dependent on Muslims being confident and creative in the way they apply it. The detritus of the past does not have to be carried forward on our backs. It is stupid to live according to conditions that no longer exist. Would we wear winter clothes in summer?

The individualism we are accustomed to now is isolating; with no need to look after their neighbours or even their own families, people become emotionally detached and capable of doing extraordinary acts of cold-blooded cruelty, or simply neglect. It is unhealthy for the individual to ignore the whole that surrounds him, just as it is unhealthy for a society to ignore the needs and rights of the individuals that make up its whole.

The extremities facing us in today’s world, here and now, might have resonances that go back to a Biblical era – that’s where religion becomes a fountain of wisdom, a body of past experiences that can be observed and learned from – but without the independent thinking that knows how to sieve the metaphor from the concrete, the lesson from the teaching material, it is worse than having no guidance at all.

The balance between all our extremes can be regained, but it will happen one conscience at a time.

The Whirler

At dawn
if you creep up
quite close to my brain
you will hear all sorts of
snorts and grumblings
as a motley crew of workers
are creaking out of bed
getting the show ready
for the world if it
wants it.

Birdbeak
is clearing her throat
in anticipation of the
Debating Society’s
daily throng of one
(herself) to be quietly
seated for her assassination
of ideas and opinions
to begin.

‘Sirs,’ she squawks, ‘and
Madams, I put it to you
that the hippie ideal is a
shallow pretence of
great wisdom and
authoritative advice,
dressed up in a spidery
rasta wig, smelling faintly
of beer nad
old sweat. They
disguise their acute
judgmentality
of others, disdain
for alternatives
to their Alternative,
as Chilling The Hell Out
and Letting Things Flow,
whilst fuming inside
is a small moustached fascist
dictating how everyone
should live and believe.
I think I have stated my case
rather well, don’t you?’

Meanwhile, in a room
littered with guitar strings
and passed-out partygoers
a cantaora is rising at this
most unholy hour to catch the
bombona man (the gas
bottle’s low). Her wild
red-streaked hair is still
nest-like, mascara from
last night’s performance
a mad hash of black
under mad flashing eyes.
She doesn’t deign to talk;
her voice rips the air
after midnight, when lava
built up in her chest
will scorch ears in a cascade of
hoarse-throated passion,
heels stamping, hips snapping,
hands grabbing invisible oranges
plucking them free from trees
searching for real sweetness
amid anguish. Her singing
is melody inverted, no
little girl laugher to tinkle in
its canal. She is pure, raw, hot
woman-fire, longing for rain
and her song spits and crackles
with sobs of old pain. But this morning
she’s grumbly, a dressing-gowned
mess, in pink fluffy slippers, fresh
fag on her lip, tobacco-stained scowl
sending Mr Bombona
scurrying off to
another address.

Outside in the gardens
beyond Lava’s room
under palm trees on patios
mirrored with pools of
cool water with flashes of orange
and white, Green Earth Child’s
bum is straight up in the air
(the blood rushes down to
the head, very good for the
pituitary gland, so they say).
Her hair wafts about straggly
ants crawl round her ankles
dirt underlining quick-darting fingers
scritching out scratchy weeds:
some of them she nibbles on,
remembering their Latin names
and nutritional benefits; she is
oxygen-drunk in the company
of leaves.

Up in the attic
a songwriter huddles,
chewed Biro and paper
cradled in hands that
close and open, sculpting
the shape of this feeling
or that. Now music is
called out of emptiness,
notes throb and clash and
reverberate in the wooden vessel
pressed against her chest.
A creature’s being birthed
through the soundhole
intuitive action
essential to let it emerge
head first, twisting when
twisting’s needed to free
its four limbs: no rush.
It’s born and she licks it
into life, cleans away
the viscera that kept it
waiting in sacred darkness
safeguarding its secret
til it tastes air and is kissed
by the angel that makes it
forget all it knows. The song
is alive and the silence that
grew it is gone.

In a liminal space
at once inside and out
there is a fifth being,
her head tilted lightly
eyes closed to soak up the
Grace as is falls softer than
snow, melting into her spin
as she whirls in her own
private snowstorm. Her
white robe unfurls in a
circular sail billowing
out in an oceanic wave
transcribing airborne
acrobatics on unseen
vertices of Dunya and
Here-and-Now Paradise.
One arm is raised up
to let Light trickle down,
cross her shoulders and wet
the bare earth, cool the
faces of all the inmates
of this ramshackle home
in a rose-water mist.
But the Whirler herself is
immune to sensations,
so rapt in the Real that
no substitute bothers to
try and convince her.

The Whirler’s the one
who is mostly ignored, though
the sight of her levitating
UFO-like over towns and
green mountains should
make us break out into
ecstatic cheers. But she’s too
bloody true, so incredibly
real that the rest of this outfit
gets bored with her
serenity.

I sit on the hem of
her skirt as it rises and falls
and I watch as the cycles of
heartbreak and hope follow on
while the feet that the whole
crazy circus is pivoting on
are sure-footed
and
never
once
lose
their
rhythm.