Chromatography

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The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.

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.

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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.

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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!

To Be A Desert In A Monsoon

Rio Guadalfeo, Órgiva, las Alpujarras, Granada.

Summer in the Alpujarras is all about water.

Neighbours have been known to break out into fistfights over whose turn it is to use the acequia, the snowmelt that gushes down from the mountains through carefully dug and maintained channels to the smallholdings in the valley below. From the beginning of June through to the end of September, smallholders get a turn using the water, however long it takes them to water their land (say, three hours to do a third of a hectare) – although that turn might come at four o’clock in the morning.

When it’s your turn, though, you jump at it. The acequia is the difference between this valley being a lush, green paradise where fig trees snake colossal grey limbs up into huge shady labyrinths, mulberries splat you in the face with their fat juicy berries, and orange groves infuse the air with blossom in spring and fruit in winter, and a rocky, yellow plain so dry that firefighters have to suck whole truckfuls of water out of the river daily to keep forest fires at bay. Helicopters overhead is bad news; it means someone’s house has burned down and a mountain slope around it too.

Acequia at work

‘Doing the acequia’ is an utterly magical experience. You open the little metal gate that channels the water to your land, and suddenly you have a powerful, roaring torrent of icy water that you have to rush about diverting so that it reaches the trees and flowerbeds and veggie patch without sweeping everything away. Kids strip off and splash around; little waterfalls appear between terraces of land. On the hottest day experienced in Orgiva in recent years (40 degrees or higher) we did the acequia and the whole place was easily five degrees cooler instantly.

Stream above Capileira. Gives the word ‘cool’ a whole new meaning.

I write this now while fasting; I haven’t drunk or eaten in the daytime now for two weeks, bar a few days when the heat really did get too much for me. This is my first Ramadan for four years, during which I was either pregnant or breastfeeding the whole time. It’s strangely energising.

The first week or so was rough but I have more energy now than I did before, I’m not freaking out at my kids any more, I’m calmer and more patient (let’s see how long it lasts); the process of temporarily wasting away means your body gets a chance to clean out some crap via your pores before having to cope with digesting more food. And with it, whole rafts of negative mental states wash over you with shocking strength and then ebb away to practically nothing. It can really send you into a blissed-out trance, even while you’re cleaning bottoms and puddles of wee ten times a day.

But one thing that fasting heightens is the phantom sensations of taste and texture – specifically, for me right now (can you tell?) the feeling of quenching a raging thirst with cool, abundant water. I feel like a piece of arid land with trillions of seeds buried dormant beneath the surface; one good soaking and they spring into life, coating the tinderbox earth with a thick, moist layer of vegetation.

So when I break the fast at dusk, watching the the pink light disappear from the mountain tops before me, a litre of liquid in various forms (iced hibiscus tea, 0.0 % beer, juice, or just cold Lanjaron spring water) goes down with startling alacrity. I timed it yesterday; one litre of water in seven and a half minutes. I must have had a desert on the inside on my body that absorbed it gratefully in seconds; my skin even felt plumper afterwards.

Many people will think it’s too extreme, and it’s true, in a way, but like any test of endurance, you will always be astonished at how easy it was after all, how much stamina you had and didn’t know it, how much resolve that was there, just waiting to be necessary.

Our lives in the developed world are a doddle compared to those of women who traipse for five miles under African sun to fetch a pot of water and carry it home on their heads. The very fact that we have water piped into our houses means that we waste it. If we had to carry it five miles ourselves, would we leave a tap running while we brushed our teeth? Would we let a single drop go to waste?

Stream above Capileira

Arduous as it may be to fast for a whole month, to shine up a copper pot you’ve got to rub it hard. And the payoff, every evening, is to feel what it must be like to be a desert plain under a monsoon. There is a hadith that says that when a person breaks his fast at the end of a day, there is nothing between him and Allah. Union with the Divine tastes of cold, pure water after sixteen hours’ drought in the baking August heat.

And by God that tastes good.