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!

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To Dream, To Float, To Glorify

  This week I submitted a translation I have been working on for 5 months, of an Ibn ‘Arabi book on the 99 Names of God that had previously been translated into Spanish (I was translating it into English). It’s been a labour of love but also a “gift-laden carpet”* in many extraordinary ways.

This uy again.

This guy again.

  The most transformative part of the work, of course, was just going over the meanings of the 99 Names over and over again, discovering new nuances. It is astonishing how few of them are negative, in our understanding of the word (Al-Muntaqim – the Avenger – and Al-Darr – the Bringer of Harm – are the only two that spring to mind; al-Mumit, the Bringer of Death, doesn’t really count, as death can be the most beautiful release, depending on how much you want it).

  On the other hand, there are dozens of Names that relate to generosity, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness: Al-Rahman (The All-Compassionate), Al-Rahim (The All-Merciful), Al-Ghafar, Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar (variations on the Most Forgiving), At-Tawwab (He who turns towards the one turning towards Him), Al-Sattar (He who conceals faults), Al-Karim (The Generous), Al-Jawad (He Who gives before being asked), Al-Halim (The Mild), Al-Wasi’ (The All-Embracing, as in the Qur’anic verse “His mercy embraces all things”), al-Wali (The Protecting Friend), Al-Wadud (The Loving), Al-Wahhab (in contrast to the religious conservatives who have taken on this name, it means The Giving)…

  I shouldn’t be so surprised, but the impression that one often gets of Islam is that it encourages fear of God, fear of hell, fear of a patriarchal system that is supposed to order every aspect of our lives. But the reality, when you pull those appearances apart, is quite the opposite. It’s enough to melt a heart frozen stiff with fear.

  Even though I’ve been Muslim all my life, or perhaps precisely because of that, I have so often found it easy to slip into assumptions about what a Muslim life is like. There always needs to be a balance between the intellectual, the ethical, the practical and the aesthetic. What often happens is that one or more of these is neglected; our faith limps along cock-eyed, developing achy joints as a result of its poor coordination.

  And then we innocently go to the nearest, quickest reference points to seek out an uplifting hadith, quote, du’a or bit of history: Sheikh Google, his wife Binti YouTube and their hyperactive son, Ibn Facebook. Apart from those things that are posted by friends, whose intentions we know well enough to trust, we emerge from these virtual encounters riddled with gunshot wounds inflicted by different doctrinal angles, and shell-shocked at the bigoted, insulting, or downright stupid ideas (not to mention actions) of some Muslims.

  I think it was because of my need for something that really went deep that this book landed on my table. Ibn A. seems to have a knack for explaining even the most intricate existential problems (such as the existence of evil – he says that transgressions, being brought into existence by God, ask forgiveness from Him on behalf of the place where they are carried out – that is, in the person doing them). Some of these issues have dogged me for years; no-one else has put them straight for me satisfactorily. My intellectual side can be dragged out of the closet and de-mothballed at last, to rejoin my daily wardrobe of selves.

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi's works - which numbered about 200

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi’s works – which numbered about 200

  One of the things that has hooked me most is his etymology. Sufism has a long tradition of finding correlations between words with the same letters in a different order – hence the link between ‘to do, act’ (عمل) and ‘to know’ (علم), i.e. don’t act without knowledge; or words whose graphics are the same when the vowels are not written – such as عالم, which can mean ‘knower’ (‘alim) or ‘cosmos’ (‘alam); or words whose letters themselves (each one of which has not only a numerical value associated with it but also meanings of their own, such as ʿayn, which means the letter ع, eye, spring or source) provide them with other shades of meaning: so, you could say, عدم, meaning ‘non-existence’, is differentiated from ادم, Adam, by the ‘ayn that is his eye (and thus his all-important witnessing) and the Source that brought him into being.

    Everything in existence is, by Sufi logic, a sign of Allāh – including, of course, ourselves – so nothing is coincidental. All things and beings, events and non-events, are alive with meaning. Because Arabic evolved as a language for the purpose of receiving divine revelation, all of these little correlations are clues left for the careful observer to trip over, their faces lighting up with glee at what a gem was left lying around for anyone to find.

  One of these correlations dawned on me the other night, late, when my brain had slipped out of analytical, left-brain mode and into that dream-like, perceptive state usually populated (in my brain, at this hour) by complete gibberish.

  It was this: the verb سبح, which in form I means ‘to swim, to float’ and hence ‘to transcend’, and which in form II is translated as ‘to glorify, exalt, extol’ (as in the expression ‘سبحان الله’, translated as ‘Transcendent is Allāh’ or ‘Exalted is Allāh’), combines these two nuances for a very good reason.

  When we utter (or feel) the phrase ‘subḥān’Allāh’ – on seeing something extraordinary or astonishing, or realising something that inspires awe in us, or simply when recognising the incredible beauty, harmony, or logic of something – not only do we extol Allāh, but we transcend the mundane hamster-wheel of negativity that we wade through in our daily lives ourselves.

  So, while these clever little connections leap out at the word nerd and light them up like a Christmas tree, in fact everything has the ability to have that effect if we only paid enough attention to it – or, perhaps, the right kind of attention.

lenticular clouds, orgiva

  Which leads me to another little light-bulb that blinked on this week: that in order to become a friend of God (the term used in Arabic to mean a saint), perhaps what’s needed is to treat everything as a friend – loved ones, strangers, all creatures, nature, water, time, space… – because it all exists in and because of Divine Reality. It’s easy to make a big show of religion, to wear pious-looking gear and be kind to the poor and needy, and then snap at a child because they their need for breakfast does not coincide with my desire to get up and make it. What do you mean that’s not universal?

  Several of the Companions mentioned that they never saw anything but that they saw Allah in, behind, or with it. And a famous Sufi training story tells how a fish went swimming through the ocean, asking everyone where the water was. I might only taste a drop of it of this ocean, but it leaves me realising how thirsty I am for it.

*An aphorism of the Shadhili Sufi master Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari reads: “States of need are like gift-laden carpets”. See also my previous post Song for the Crocodiles.

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.