To Kill or Convert You

Hatred is a tide
that gnaws away at coastlines
salty teeth so fine you might
mistake it for subtlety.
But bitterness is never mild
just as acid always burns
and bigots pour their poison
into intellectual-sounding words
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
to stun the seaweed
bobbing idly in the surf
infuse the fear into it
that some vile wave is rising over there
its colour bilious green
and even if it tells you it’s benign
enriched with algae to revive the earth
you mustn’t heed its lies:
it is bloodthirsty, heinous,
risen up from different lands
infested with parasites
designed to leech
your vital organs dry:
to kill or convert you.
Race from it as you would from a shark
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
warn the world about it
kill it before it kills you first.
The biosphere must have its predators and
in this one you are their prey.
This tide’s a spiral
pushing us apart and
driving us down deeper
into the blurring mud.
Once it was Jews
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
and this fresh wave we swim in
the water soaked into our cells is now
a tsunami threatening
to smash their homes to matchsticks.
Vague outrages that flare up
each time the words are spoken
dump blood into the sea
and choke the wildlife.

Hatred has always been a tide
stooping low at times
or breaking its banks
in the absence of truth.
I am learning to tread water
for the day it hits my roof.

To Kill or Convert You

Hatred is a tide
that gnaws away at coastlines
salty teeth so fine you might
mistake it for subtlety.
But bitterness is never mild
just as acid always burns
and bigots pour their poison
into intellectual-sounding words
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
to stun the seaweed
bobbing idly in the surf
infuse the fear into it
that some vile wave is rising over there
its colour bilious green
and even if it tells you it’s benign
enriched with algae to revive the earth
you mustn’t heed its lies:
it is bloodthirsty, heinous,
risen up from different lands
infested with parasites
designed to leech
your vital organs dry:
to kill or convert you.
Race from it as you would from a shark
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
warn the world about it
kill it before it kills you first.
The biosphere must have its predators and
in this one you are their prey.
This tide’s a spiral
pushing us apart and
driving us down deeper
into the blurring mud.
Once it was Jews
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
and this fresh wave we swim in
the water soaked into our cells is now
a tsunami threatening
to smash their homes to matchsticks.
Vague outrages that flare up
each time the words are spoken
dump blood into the sea
and choke the wildlife.

Hatred has always been a tide
stooping low at times
or breaking its banks
in the absence of truth.
I am learning to tread water
for the day it hits my roof.

To Kill or Convert You

Hatred is a tide
that gnaws away at coastlines
salty teeth so fine you might
mistake it for subtlety.
But bitterness is never mild
just as acid always burns
and bigots pour their poison
into intellectual-sounding words
like ‘civilisation’
‘integration’ and
‘radicalisation’
to stun the seaweed
bobbing idly in the surf
infuse the fear into it
that some vile wave is rising over there
its colour bilious green
and even if it tells you it’s benign
enriched with algae to revive the earth
you mustn’t heed its lies:
it is bloodthirsty, heinous,
risen up from different lands
infested with parasites
designed to leech
your vital organs dry:
to kill or convert you.
Race from it as you would from a shark
fear it
spurn it
vilify it
warn the world about it
kill it before it kills you first.
The biosphere must have its predators and
in this one you are their prey.
This tide’s a spiral
pushing us apart and
driving us down deeper
into the blurring mud.
Once it was Jews
and Gypsies,
Negroes
and Natives,
Commies
and Draft-dodgers,
Gays
and Molesters.
Now it’s us,
the Muslims,
and this fresh wave we swim in
the water soaked into our cells is now
a tsunami threatening
to smash their homes to matchsticks.
Vague outrages that flare up
each time the words are spoken
dump blood into the sea
and choke the wildlife.

Hatred has always been a tide
stooping low at times
or breaking its banks
in the absence of truth.
I am learning to tread water
for the day it hits my roof.

The Invisible Muslim, part 1

 

Image

Victoria Park panorama, Lawrence Fredric White (Wiki Commons)

  Taking my kids to the V&A-designed playground at Victoria Park this morning, where toddlers in swim nappies braved the indecisive English weather to splash in a trickle of water pumped into a sandpit, I was sitting on a rock to watch my children climb the wooden castle when a girl of about one stumbled up to me, grabbing my knee to steady herself, and stared earnestly into my eyes.

  Her brother seemed embarrassed; smiling, he tried to coax her away, back to her pink Disney princess toy buggy, with the blonde haired, blue eyed, gormless-looking dolly sitting in it. He spoke to her in Arabic; both had tumbles of black hair, and a skin tone that I found hard to place on my Mental Map of Ethnicities: perhaps Sudanese? Or Southern Egyptians? 

  There was another sister, who wore a vivid purple satin dress with a flowered sash, unusually festive for the sandpit, where my son and his friends were exploding damp sand-balls off each other’s shoulders. She also seemed particularly excited, amazed even, at this place. At some point I realised that they did not speak enough English to talk to the others, only speaking Arabic to their mother (a pretty, round-faced woman in a brown hijab and jilbab, or long tunic coat) to to each other.

  Then I noticed that in the process of doing my best impression of an exasperated mother (why is it I can’t stop doing that impression sometimes?) I was yelling out the names of my kids and their friends – all of which were Arabic. I might have imagined that the mother’s ears pricked up, looking out for the Muslim-named children, but it seemed as though they did. 

  The peculiarity of the situation struck me. A couple of white, English-looking people, shouting Arabic names to their equally white, English-looking kids…without a means of communicating fluently with a Muslim family right beside us who probably would have been glad to have been able to communicate with someone there. Did the mother or the children think we’d just given our kids those names because they were fashionable that year? Beyoncé, Travis, Chantelle…Muhammad, Sakeena, Jamal…

  And did our kids understand that they had something in common with these other kids, playing alongside them silently, their wide eyes reading the playground and all the sandcastles and plastic watermills like a sort of field trip to England?

I started hunting for a pretext to practice some of my (rather limited) Arabic with the mother. Spoken Arabic is always the bugbear of classroom students – and me perusing a dictionary or bouncing grammar questions off my friends’ heads doesn’t even count as a classroom lesson. ‘As-salaamu ‘alaykum an…er…afham…‘Arabiyya…er…shuayya shuayya!’ Not the scintillating conversation I’d like to have, but I’ve started worse in other languages and still received warm responses. There is something about the language barrier that has always made me want to scale it.

Image 

Aerial shot of Victoria Park by Bald Boris (WIki Commons)

  But the family moved on before I got a chance to ask where they were from, if they were holidaying here, if they liked Victoria Park/London/all that smalltalk stuff, if they needed any help with translation, what their kids’ favourite games were…In any case, I wouldn’t have been able to ask all those things. 

  And who knows what their response would have been? Wondering why my friend and I weren’t wearing scarves? I’d avoided the SOAS Islamic Society like the plague for the first few years of my time there out of fear of being judged; when I was eventually lured by the smell of free iftars, in my fourth and final year, I noticed how many people there dressed like me: with the subtle veil of normalcy (well, relatively speaking). I had wanted to kick myself at prejudging the ISOC as being so judgmental. 

  How many beautiful connections had I missed out on because of my avoidance tactic? It is so hard to know how you will be taken, accepted, rejected, treated as a kindred spirit, scolded, looked after, criticised, hugged; but the years are proving to me that the worst of it happens very rarely, and the best of it happens more often than you realise. 

  Probably the greatest fear of randomly speaking to other Muslims is the unavoidable fact that I will never be one of them – at least, not in the sense of their homeland, their food, their customs. Language seems like one of the only ways, bettered only by praying in jam‘a, that I’ve really felt a part of a Muslim culture other than my own, English micro-culture. It’s a bit of a pathetic fear, though. I’d rather focus on this wonderful filament that connects us.

  Only a few days previously, I’d been in the exact same spot, being alternately drizzled on and sprayed with sand, when I’d seen a group of Bangladeshi women strolling their kids and buggies through the park, some hijab’ed, some nijab’ed. And the sight of one of them, dressed entirely in black with only her eyes showing, sent a shiver of fear through me.

  I have never had to wear a face veil, and always thought it would feel suffocating; but a new friend, met this summer, relates that growing up in the city of Medina, girls looked forward to being able to wear a niqab, as this was what grown-up women did. It was like owning your first pair of high heels – equally impractical, and yet so deeply ingrained into our understanding (in the West, at least) of womanhood that it feels like you’re hopelessly conservative if you don’t wear one!

  But, as I am beginning to see, there is so much I still fear about my own fellow Muslims. The papers must be getting to me.

P.S. A very funny new animated cartoon from Pakistan, Burka Avenger, takes the idea of this fear and turns it on its head; the term ‘ninja’ couldn’t be more apt!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XahbqLdCVhE

 

This post is part of a forthcoming series of reflections, ‘The Invisible Muslim’.

The World, Retranslated

Lately, I have been feeling an unusual pang of envy towards men.

It’s not penis envy. You can get one of those quite easily on eBay these days, and in any case I rather like sitting down to pee – it is by far the more convenient position for reading.

No; it’s more of a vague, pervasive, unsettling feeling that there is some wonderful thrill in being masculine. It was perfectly expressed, I noticed as I stood in line to pay a bill at Banesto yesterday, in the exhilarated faces of the Spanish football team as they raised the European Cup trophy. The bank, which sponsors the Spanish team, had printed an enormous, shiny, cardboard poster of this moment, which occupied a good size of the grey-tiled space that was otherwise completely empty. A bit like the coffers of most Spanish banks.

The faces of the lucky footballers were the picture of euphoria: hair flying, teeth exposed right back to the molars, fists raised in jubilation, heady yells of triumph captured and banished to a poster in a lonely bank office in a silent cardboard image. In that original moment, their happiness exploded out into reality with the sheer rush of achieving what they had worked for years untiringly, with nothing but massive amounts of money as an incentive.

The pang of envy, if it were to be put into words, felt something like this: ‘Here I am juggling a small child and bag and buggy and being polite and doing endless menial jobs without the distinction of a wage with all sorts of ideas for my novel/short stories/poems/songs/articles/plans for workshops/cure for cancer and only scraps of time to try to put them together meaningfully between the washing/lunch/school run/endless toddler toilet trips and there are those men with shiny hair and muscles standing out in exultation at their achievement with the world’s approval roaring in their ears. Wouldn’t that feel nice?’

It’s the classic feminist gripe, that men do things that women don’t. They walked on the moon. They developed the theory of relativity. They invaded Poland. It’s as if all of male-kind gets the credit for the actions of specific men who did specific things and got a pat on the back (or, er, the Allied forces down their throats) for it. They may have been stingy, unreliable, arrogant, unkind to orphans, overly fond of alcohol, neglectful of their children, terrible at making steak tartare, or just plain stinky. But there is this trophy raised glintingly in their hands, and they win the day and the approval of the masses (or, er, the Hitler Youth movement…OK, this was quite a confusing example).

The longer I stared at the poster of the selección española, however, the more their jubilation started to make me a bit queasy. The sweat was just a little too shiny; the muscles really did stand out in quite a grotesque way, especially on their necks; the teeth seemed too sharply pointed in the canines. The glory of winning made their eyes leap out in crazed bulges. They could have had a severed head hanging from their heads and flecks of blood on their medieval tunics, but the expression would have remained more or less the same, bar the nicely bleached teeth. The rush of vicarious adrenaline turned cold in my blood; perhaps that analogy about the Nazis wasn’t so far off the mark, after all.

So it got me thinking. Where does this man-envy come from? If we are all well aware of the heinous acts that male-kind has inflicted and continues to inflict on humankind, through political repression, warfare, abuse of prisoners, domestic abuse, criminal banking mismanagement, or making snarky remarks when we can find our handbags, why do we still feel that men have the upper hand when it comes to human value?

There might be many theories out there, interesting ones, but here’s by two bits: the world is, and always has been, in the grip of the major delusion that life is all about what people get. I mean by that the acquisition of status or credit or acclaim as much as material objects. But it amounts to the same thing; everything we acquire or achieve hangs heavily in our hands like the severed head of the blood-lusting warriors. They weigh us down, day by day more heavily, until they finally take us into the grave like leaden lumps.

What is the alternative to this spiritual gravity? Giving. There is a saying in Islam that whatever you give in life you are given in paradise, so when you give a gift, make it the things you love the most, and not some crummy thing you’d rather not have anyway. In my personal view, paradise is not only a state of consciousness that person finds after death, if they are open to it, but a state of consciousness that a person can at least get glimpses of while alive, if they are open to it. With every thing you sacrifice or give away, your attachment to the world and all its trappings become looser, and you begin to float above it, free.

If we look at the achievements of men compared with those of women, it is clear that men dominate the outward, the public, the world of prizes and accolades and severed heads – I mean trophies. There are more male comedians than female, more male CEOs, politicians, theatre actors, judges, university professors, and so on.

But if we are looking at things from our new and improved perspective, all of that is nothing but ten-tonne weights mooring a soul to the world, to the endless mill of seeking approval from others, of getting pole position, beating our records, outdoing our rivals, being number one. In whose eyes? The man (or woman) who wins a gold medal in the Olympics might be a total prick at home. Only the people who are most distant, the newspaper-readers, the television-gazers, the status-enviers will admire him (or her) for that achievement, not knowing that perhaps his (or her) family loathes the very sight of him. (Or her. Can I stop now?)

On the other hand, women, in a very general and blanket sense, are prize-winning sacrificers. We offer up our nutrients, abdominal cavities and breastmilk (not to mention perkiness) to bring the next generation of human beings into the world. The vast majority of women still do the vast majority of housework – an issue that the feminist champion Selma James has addressed in her many campaigns to make governments pay women a wage for doing housework.

We look after young children, elderly parents, siblings having life crises, friends going through divorces, dogs and cats needing treatment for mange – we even take part in collections of dry and tinned food for people hit by the financial crisis, like the one the Spanish supermarket Coviran is currently running. We give up careers to care for families. We give up afternoons rehearsing for charity pantomimes or putting on benefit gigs or selling raffle tickets for this or that good cause. My wonderful friend and fellow blogger Norah at Life in Marrakesh has just managed to set up a charitable initiative that offers cookery training to Moroccan women who have no means of supporting themselves, and then helps them sell their goods in a restaurant (see her latest blog post if you want to donate).

Here’s the politically correct bit: OF COURSE it’s not fair to say that all men should be blamed for the disgraceful actions of a few, simply because they are male. By the same token, we women can’t suddenly start thinking that we are all perfect enlightened beings who are always tolerable and lovely, even when we are ovulating. We can be downright horrendous when someone takes our – OUR! – role in said charity pantomime.

But here’s the thing. For a very long time, probably millennia, women have been thought of as inferior to men BECAUSE OF A LIE. We work ourselves silly trying to catch up to the giddy heights of male achievement. Mothers often do the work of three people – paid job, childcare, housework – and end up exhausted and frustrated because they can’t give all of them their full attnetion. We are stuck on a hamster wheel, racing in the wrong direction.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which the value of an action depended on how much benefit it gave to other people. Imagine a world where the measure of a person’s worth is turned upside-down, where the people who own the least are considered the luckiest while the rich are pitied for their anxiety over their burdens. Imagine a world in which people compete to be the most generous, the most genuinely humble, the most compassionate.

This is the world that women excel in. This is the world where things regain their real value. This is the real world; we are living in it right now. All it needs is to be retranslated.