A Tiny Window in the Palace of Rahma

image

“A mercy to all the worlds”:
Can you comprehend that?
The world of rocks, of mushrooms,
winds, seas, whales, mosquitos,
jinn, trees, underground rivers
bacteria, bears and ozone
the dizzying telescopic jump
the human mind can make from
the tiniest imaginable
– and where the imagination
can take you beyond –
to the vastest nebulas
digitally colored in pink and pistachio
for who knows what colours
we’d see them in up close

All the worlds:
angelic, demonic, uncertain
and solid, theoretical and tangible
the dead, the made and the
still only an idea
the embryo forming unknown
in its private universe
secrets that bud in longing hearts
genetic shifts as yet unstudied
the germ of a song
a singer wakes up humming
and whatever cats get up to
when we’re not around
the meaning of a child’s
felt pen diagram
the lutf that turns grass into milk
and manure into sweet oranges

If we imagine his mercy
was like ours, extending to our hands
the kindness we place in our words
sent on prayers, perhaps, to where it’s needed
we take all the worlds
and reduce them to a
kitchen knife
telephone wire
postman’s trolley
liable to electricity cuts and
over long breakfast breaks

You need imagination
to even see through
one tiny window in the palace of rahma
and if our imagination is so mean
clinging to the drainpipe of dogma
how can we ever get inside?

 

 

Note: Rahma is an Arabic word meaning ‘mercy’, and the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is described in Qur’an as “A mercy to all the worlds”. Lutf is also Arabic and means both ‘subtlety’ and ‘gentleness’ or ‘kindness’.

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In Joyful Memory of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore

Yesterday my dear friend, mentor and publisher passed away after several years of living with cancer, and a lifetime of prolific writing.

Coming of age in Beatnik California, among contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Laurence Ferlinghetti, he certainly didn’t write for critics or to be nominated any country’s Poet Laureate; rather his life’s mission was, as far as I can tell, to distill the medicinal quintessence of the Middle Eastern/North African spiritual path he had come to in his native tongue, always in the spirit of the utmost personal honesty.

Writing mostly (entirely, even) in the middle of the night, his poems were full of his characteristic whimsy and gravity, dazzling and at times dizzying changes of perspective from the gnat’s to the nova’s, and throughout them a rumination on life and its purpose and its end while, perhaps, peeling potatoes or watching geese fly over a Dutch barn. Here are a few poems on the subject of death I came across today from one of his 50+ works, The Fireater’s Lunchbreak:

DEATH IS COMING

Death is coming
and we’re going to have a

lawn party
though it be winter

I’m going to wear my hat

The wheels of earth are
revolving with a grinding sound

I can make out death’s face
in the mist

How can I believe it
with light all around?

Not even a little door
is needed that’s how fully

dimensional I feel and
green shoots growing in space

everywhere at once
in the winter chill

 

ONE WHITE HAIR

Death is a white hair that lands on our
lapel that can’t be returned to our head

Once we’re cut off from our source
how can we find our way again?

Unperturbed by events that showed us
death’s horrid doorways

the white hair that lands on our lapel
lies silent and still

Once we move off from our starting place
we’re sure to arrive where we’ve never been before

Only God can catch us with sure hands
and bathe us in sudsy waters

The eyes’ windows shut down at death
and His windows open

The heart’s windows are never closed
here or there

One hair alone is enough to show us –
Take heed of that falling hair!

 

LIKE THIS DEATH!

Death you funny old fogy
Death you amorous adolescent
ivy in your hair

Death you ring around the bathtub
Death you perfect slick icicle

Death you pork rind on sizzling bun
Death you bus out of control in the Andes

Death you pop-goes-the-weasel
Death you swansong in the full moonlight

Death you full swoon on an Algiers balcony
Death you sneering policeman caught red handed

Death you slip through a noose
Death you slipknot in a noose

Death you moose looking for breakfast
Death you ripe berry ready to be plucked

Tunnel out the living body into a new body
this time with no earth in it

Under the earth Death
Under the eye of the clock Death

Under God’s watchful Eye Death
in His breath Death His inbreath Death
and His outbreath Death

We are right there at the punch line
we’ve made the ball of light in the air
with our hands and
set it rolling

We are merrily along
hoping for the best death

Owl eye skunk drunk Death
punch drunk puckered over with the Kiss of Death

Smack!

Like this
Death!

 

His influence for meek, toe-deep writers like me was to show that in poetry anything is possible. A paperclip could be the metaphor for union with the Divine, or it could be used to pick the lock to another realm in which cups of coffee sang songs and a snore told fathomless secrets. Or it could just be a paperclip, and isn’t that just the best thing for it to be?

But far from forcing the frontiers of his imagination, he would wait at the limits of it patiently, watching for something to stride out of the Unseen like a snatch of a waking dream, or for the beginning of a story to start telling itself like an old friend recounting an adventure, and one line would lead to another like a silk scarf being pulling from a magician’s hat, until the poem had emerged in full and could wander off on its own, shaking its haunches in the sunlight.

Though his passing is sad, his memory is one of zany humour and enlightening frankness, which is a pretty wonderful legacy to have bequeathed. His website gives an overview of all of his books, with links to purchase them, and it is hoped that there will soon be an anthology for newcomers to his work who don’t know where to start. You can also find an obituary of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore here, written by my dad who had been a friend and fellow traveller on the Sufi path for over forty years.

Bon voyage, ‘Abdal-Hayy, to the other world your soul always belonged in. And apologies for all this soppy stuff, you sweet old bologna loaf.

Love is a Traveller…For Sale Online Now!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that my first collection of poems is now available to buy online here!

LOVE IS TRAVELLER  FC Jan 28  copy

According to the publisher, Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore at Ecstatic Exchange:

“With Medina Whiteman’s lively, metamorphosing voice, we have here finely detailed poetic stances on whatever attracts her and her pen, and her heart is here, and its centripetal ripples edge out to our own world and wash over it as if with our own sensibilities — and it is a welcoming thing, a sweet and healing thing to know these enlightened trails.”

And from a review by Michael Sugich, author of Signs on the Horizons:

“Love is a Traveller and We are Its Path” is an astonishing, accomplished, heartbreakingly beautiful work. Ms. Whiteman writes as a girl, a woman, a mother, and a wide-eyed, reflective observer of her world — as seeker, believer and sage. For her God is truly in the details. Each observation, whether earthy or supernal, is internalized and suffused with a piercing awareness of meaning, and a deep, abiding faith that shines through a world full of mundane and transcendent particulars.”

Ain’t Lateefa Spiker‘s cover art lovely? Here‘s the link to buy a copy yourself and see if you agree with them. Pass on the news, and happy reading!

 

 

 

This Meteorology Article Just Blew My Mind. Check Out What Happens at Line 33. Seriously.

While London suffocates under a horrific quarter-inch of snow, here the worst part of an Alpujarran winter has kicked in for the second time: wind so forceful it’s upended our wheelbarrow full of firewood, and almost made it impossible to close the front door. It drives rain through the gaps in the not-very-energy-efficient window frames, leaving puddles amid the Lego on the kids’ bedroom floor. The children are up and down like the FTSE all night, while a mysteriously clanging pipe by our bedroom window chimes the hour.

As usual, I have been unprepared for the effect that all this has on my overall degree of bonkersness. I start entertaining wild notions that my skull is actually made up of millions of hairline fractures, invisible even to an MRI (not that I’ve had one) into which the wind miraculously creeps – bypassing the masonry entirely – rendering me significantly more irritable, depressed, argumentative, critical, and – to use the scientific term for it – unbearable. Under the influence of this stinker of a bad mood which no amount of essential oils, chamomile tea, dark chocolate or videos on YouTube of babies being scared by farts could subdue, I finally had one of those moments in which bloggers

go into an italicised bold indent for effect.

I started asking myself, ‘if I include a stock photo of models wrestling with deep and meaningful thoughts, will it help me finally become the life-coaching guru I’d always dreamed of being? Will I finally be able to sell an e-book explaining the meaning of everything that will pay for my early retirement? Will my words be printed in mock typewriter font over evocative photos and shared virally on Facebook? Could this even be – dare I think it – Oprah-worthy?’

This is what I look like when I am wracked with deep and meaningful questions.

This is what I look like when I am wracked with deep and meaningful questions.

At this point I laugh heartily, then have to stop when my belly hurts so much I worry I’ll go into labour a month early.

This was the actual thought: that there is nothing so tremendous, elemental, powerful or terrifying as the wind. Rain you can avoid with gumboots and an umbrella. Sun you can revel in, or escape under shade if it gets too much. Heat can be beaten with A/C or a plunge into cold water. Thunder and lightning? Electrifying when experienced from the inside of a house.

But you can’t just avoid the wind. Even inside a building it makes its existence known. And if allowed to come to its logical conclusion, it can turn into a hurricane, a tornado, a tsunami…Meteorological caprice might make it a soft and refreshing zephyr one moment, or a landscape-changing titan the next.

"Woman expressing vulnerability in the dramatic interior." Sorry, I couldn't resist.

“Woman expressing vulnerability in the dramatic interior.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

It also struck me, as my mind went on its habitual meander into hypothesis, that for people whose landscape is dominated by desert, the wind must be even more unavoidable. Imagine being in a tent, or a small, cramped stone building with a palm-leaf roof, as the ancient Arabs would have lived – and indeed some still do – when a sandstorm hits. The word for wind in Arabic is ريح, rih, with a hard, pharyngeal h that even sounds like wind thundering through a crack in a wall.

Interestingly, the word for spirit in Arabic is from the same root: روح, ruh. The linguistic relationship reflects a semantic one: both are invisible forces only discernible by way of their effects – the things they drag along in their wake, the trees they tousle and uproot, the resistance they put up when you try to drive against them with hard, flat surfaces such as egos. It is a foreshadowing (you could cal it a ‘fore-shuddering’) of the powerlessness we feel at the unavoidable approach of death.

It’s quite a different picture to the classic Western notion of ‘spirit’, which has always conjured up images for me of dull conferences on esoteric themes, and women (or men) with long floaty hair who don’t say ‘hello’: they simply gaze meaningfully into your eyes, burning their greeting into your psyche like they’re tearing open a portal for you to comprehend what ‘hello’ really means.

When the early Arabs considered Allah breathing His ruh into each human being it must have seemed more like an inexorable power racing through every atom of their beings; for the average English person I imagine it feeling more like a pleasant summer breeze, carrying the scent of bluebells. Perhaps a song by Enya plays softly in the background.

Yet our word ‘spirit’ is also derived from the Latin ‘spiritus’, meaning ‘breathing or breath (respiration, or of the wind); breath of a god’. It appears in English referring to a supernatural entity from the mid 14th century on, and from the late 14th century to mean ‘state of mind’, ‘Divine substance’, ‘Divine mind’, ‘God’, and so on. The 4th century Latin Vulgate Bible used the term to translate the Greek psykhe (sound familiar?) and the Hebrew ruah (a not-so-distant cousin of ‘ruh‘).

Indo-European Tree. Big family!

Indo-European Tree. Big family!

In my home town, which swirls with thousands of people with long floaty hair and penetrating gazes who will talk to you at great length about the awesome power of raw food, coffee enemas and ayahuasca detoxes, there is an undercurrent of belief in the New Age notion of ‘manifestation’. That is, that whatever you are going through has arisen because of your mental state, your negative emotions, your attachments, traumas, toxic thoughts etc. etc.

Which can generate, on the one hand, a kind of god-complex in which people think they are capable of anything, and on the other a great deal of blame and guilt when someone is suffering from some major affliction, which must have been caused by their un-enlightened thoughts. As my mum said, “Whoever it is who cured themselves of Stage 3 terminal cancer by eating a macrobiotic diet, I’d like to meet them;” they’ve spawned an entire industry, one that is often trailed by stories of failure as desperate people pin their hopes on repeating someone else’s miracle cure.

While it’s certainly true that stress and anxiety contributes to ill health, and I’m sure we do have far greater power than we are aware of, there is a point at which things go beyond our control. We aren’t the centre of our own personal universes; we aren’t the masters of our destinies. That idea is so terrifying to the five-year-old narcissist in us that we block it out with the delusion that if we build up enough money, a glorious enough reputation, a beautiful enough body/wardrobe/home, we’ll be safe. There’s even a longevity diet for people who want to eat their way to immortality.

Surrendering into the knowledge that you are in far better hands than your own ends the deep argument that your mind is engaged in when it tries to be in charge. We need need, just as we need illness to make us stop and rest, or disasters to make us take stock of our blessings, or annoying people in our lives to teach us how to deal with them in a more mature way than clocking them on the head with a chair. When there’s a giant great hole in or lives, there’s the chance that extraordinary things might fall into it. When you’re stuck you start looking for openings; when you’re down you start to look up.

If Oprah calls, I’ll be outside double-pegging my washing.

Performance at Rumi’s Cave Live Lounge End of Year special

Video

This is a video of a short performance I did on the 21st of December 2013 for the wonderful people at Rumi’s Cave, a collective of artists, spoken word poets and musicians with the loveliest vibe I’ve ever come across. The visuals are a little blurry but the sound quality is great.

The two songs I played were Water (Carry the World in My Paper Cup) and Poor Man’s Prayer. The first is my own composition while the second is composed of lyrics by my dad Abd al-Lateef Whiteman which I picked up one day and put music to without knowing that he’d already put it to a traditional Andalusi tune.

Many thanks to Nura Tarmann who shot the video and shared it!

Lyrics

Water (Carry the World in My Paper Cup)

Running, come on keep up
carry the world in my paper cup
I’m on the phone since the moment I’m up
being important

I’m fully booked til mid-July
I don’t have time to wonder why
got to keep the pace up

But my boss doesn’t notice me
(it’s OK, he’s in a hurry)
I need approval you see
(it’ll come your way, don’t worry)
I can’t take it any more
working myself into the floor
and I never seem to get rewarded
tomorrow I’ll just work harder

Water flows, it
never slows, you
don’t miss yours
until your well runs dry

Just try to find some
peace of mind, you
can’t rewind
all the hours gone

And were you even for them, at…

All the time I waste
keeping up appearances in cyberspace
you know it feels so real

I’m just one click away
from the tranquility I crave
to numb the way I feel

But when the screen’s off I’m alone
(befriend the quiet and you’ll see)
I’m a stranger in my own home
(befriend yourself and you’ll be free)
is the future dark or bright,
is this blindness or insight
they said that I was born to play
but am I pawn or player in this game?

Water flows, it
never slows, you
don’t miss yours
until your well runs dry

Just try to find some
peace of mind, you
can’t rewind
all the hours lost

And were you even there for them
were you there for them
were you there…

at all

Poor Man’s Prayer (lyrics AL Whiteman)

When the dawn breaks
and the sky shakes
and the stories all unfold
when the earth gives up its secrets
the truth can be now told

You will stand there right before Him
and your voice will seem so small
Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear Your call.

Why’s your heart in such confusion
when this water is so pure?
It’s this doubt that is illusion
and this drink is just the cure
Thirty years I have been calling
don’t You hear my cry at all?

Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear Your call.

When I stood here empty-handed
You sufficed my every need
I didn’t dare to ask for more
in case you thought it greed
What is heaven? What is bliss?
Can I ask for any more than this?

Lord forgive me, I’m just a
poor man who
tried to hear your call.

Why’s your heart in such confusion
when this water is so pure?
It’s this doubt that is illusion
and this drink is just the cure
Thirty years I have been calling
don’t you hear my cry at all?

Lord forgive me
I’m just a poor man
who tried to hear Your call

Lord forgive me
Lord forgive us all
We tried to hear Your call

All rights reserved

Sufism and Motherhood: To the Walrusnut!

The Prophet Muhammad (s.) once said that “Paradise lies at the foot of the mother”.
When I gaze down, mostly I see at my feet cake crumbs, bits of Ancient Egyptian Playmobil, ripped up paper, pens without lids, and the occasional puddle for which I shall not be held accountable.
I see his point, though. After having a few days in a row of luxurious kid-free time, in which I slept way past 8am, performed music, went on spontaneous wanders through London with friends and had uninterrupted conversations, it is all the clearer to me how much of a grind on the ego it is to spend all day every day with your own kids.
My irritability crept in after about 24 hours. I was unnerved by how fast my bachelorette turn had diminished my tolerance for screeching, spats, brat-outs over toys and their ilk. I could hear myself using that exasperated tone of voice that I would so hate to hear from anyone else. Does this sound familiar? “All this mess needs to be cleared up in five minutes or the My Little Pony gets given away. Come on, I want to see some movement here! Chop chop!”
However, when I really scrutinise my flashpoints, I recognise that they fell into four general categories:
1) Mess. Lego all over the floor. Rice, ditto. Pens left unlidded (see above). Generally, things not being in the place they should be.
2) Screeching. Theirs usually provokes mine, thus forming a vicious cycle.
3) Brat-outs, spoilt behaviour, over food, spoons, plates, toys…any action indicating that things mean more than people. Really gets my goat.
4) Fighting, hitting, bruising, throwing things (especially when it’s at my head). Often involves all of the above.
Essentially, all this is boils down to something happening that I don’t want to be happening.
This in no way means that it should not, in fact, be happening. I’m sure there is some psychologist out there who has definitive proof that children need to screech, leave Lego all over the floor, brutalise their siblings or freak out because the plate is the wrong shade of green as it’s essential to their brain development. Who am I to argue?
Now, the process of trying to simultaneously manage a household, not let your child die from eating poison berries, and stay remotely sane is a serious grind on your ego. Oh, the ego. That sumptuously curved, glossy-haired chick you see in the blurry periphery of a photo only to discover she is a warted frog with prickles all over its back that lives permanently in your spleen.
Our egos get a serious jolt when we have a baby. All our ideas about ourselves – so tenderly nurtured throughout our teenage and college years, attested to by thousands of photos at various stages of our well-staged lives – is thrown into the gutter, to be replaced by a shaky-legged, stretch-marked, tearful dairy cow who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing.

And then heaven sends us one last chance to patch up our relationship to our old selves – Facebook! Here we can post selfies that have been Photoshopped to remove the black bags under eyes, wrinkles, grey hairs and look of raving desperation in our eyes.

Of course, there are lots of genuine benefits. (That’s the addict in me talking.) We can reconnect with old friends, send out requests for second-hand buggies, read endless articles about health, education, psychology, world politics and anything else that will fill us with fearful concern for our new baby’s future. And whereas the real world is full of dangerous, nasty people who sneer and criticise, Facebook language is almost always interspersed with hearts, emoticons, lols and lots of loves. So much emotion in so few characters.

In fact, we mums seem to spend an awful lot of time on FB. Quite a few mothers I have met who dash off to check their profile while the kids aren’t looking, race to the computer once the kids are in bed to post pics from that day, whose phones beep notifications which they check whilst boiling pasta.

I’ll save the platitudes about how none of this was necessary twenty years ago, when we still lived in communities and we had mums to tell us what to do about mastitis instead of Mumsnet, etc. etc…only, after reading this article about social media and narcissism, I can’t ignore the link between my FB use and my outbreaks of irritability any longer. Among the symptoms of narcissism – which were linked to excessive social media – along with believing oneself to be above the rules, hyperchondria and inability to accept criticism, was being quick to anger.

Oh dear. Not only is it a prerequisite to using social media, it’s actually making me MORE narcissistic. I was much calmer with my kids after reading that. Can’t have them thinking I’m a narcissist or something.

On a completely different spectrum of motherkind, the kind of mum whose example is passed around by Sufi-type women is the sort that has a dozen children, takes in waifs and strays too, teaches literacy and ethical values with compassion and patience, and reads Surat al-Baqarah in her spare time.

I’m not sure these women have ever existed. If they still do, I wonder if they don’t freak out when the kids are asleep and turn into vicious trolls, leaving scathing remarks on every YouTube video ever to be left open to comments.

And yet you do meet women who, eight or so children down the line, despite various health issues concomitant to those births, shrug off trouble quite well. Perhaps it’s because they’ve borne their fair share of it and have learned not to sweat the small stuff – or, indeed, any stuff. They have stories that would make your eyes pop out, or at the very least treasure your washing machine.

The allure of websites like Facebook (and to some extent WordPress, though I don’t find nearly so much time to write here) is that they present a window of opportunity to fly out of the mundane, hamster wheel existence in which your image means about as much as a raisin squashed into a sheepskin rug, and to relive, in some small measure, the lives we had before, when the world was a mirror of what people thought of us.

The thing is that in between issues 1), 2), 3) and 4) above, there are a whole host of moments spent with children that are riproaring fun without that old vampire bat, the ego, getting its feed.

Silly games or made-up words – just today we had walrusnuts, nasalnuts and toilet trees – provoke laughter that blocks the chattering mind for a few seconds at a time. Hugs do the same in a golden, peachy kind of way. Racing breathlessly through a puddly park. Painting, cutting random shapes out of paper, mucking around with clay, anything that gets you engrossed like them and not concerned with ensuring that they fulfil orders (unless you have a hard time letting go of order – in which case some messy paint is probably just the ticket).

The reason those moments are precious is because you were totally present, without the veil of your self-consciousness clouding the view. Once you’re there you access that limitless space in which imagination, innocence, and spiritual awareness become realities again. You can let go of the inner fascist and feel part of the infinite, beautiful harmony that is always in Divine hands.

Apart from all that, who wants to be remembered as that woman who cooked dinner and spent the rest of the time staring at a screen?

There’s always going to be more interesting stuff out there. It seems to me the only way to make any sense of it is to see what in here first.

At Rumi’s Cave This Jum’ah

In a suburban street in North London there is a place called Rumi’s Cave. Not knowing my pseudonym had already destined me to end up there, I’ve been going as often as I can since this summer, when just one Eid celebration turned around my image of British Islam, my long-term disavowal of performing music, and introduced me to a fluid, open, loving community I’d always imagined existed but never quite believed could be real.

Today was Jum’ah; we got there late, walking the wrong way down Willesden Lane, and had to slink through the whole crowd (qibla is more or less towards the front door) while the imam was just about ending his khutba.

He finished with a hadith qudsi, a long one I had never heard before. One line stood out: “Do not ask for your sustenance of tomorrow, for I do not ask you for your prayers of tomorrow”. It was such a simple message I don’t want to clutter it with lyrical analyses. It just made me consider what I have right at this moment, the uselessness of freaking out about how much I need next month – even though feet still move forward in pursuit of food.

If you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food in the fridge then you are in a state of abundance. Future hunger doesn’t make your stomach empty now. In prayer you have to be utterly present: it’s no good trying to stack prayers up in a nuclear bunker for such time as you’ll need them. They are absolutely present, and require absolute presence. “I am in need! Ya Rabb! I am in need!” Can anything make you more present? Is there any perfect future that could offer such immediacy?

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

1451382_756163931066762_51885419_n

For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

1451382_756163931066762_51885419_n

For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.

Musical Muslims: Retoasting an Old Chestnut

Back in London for the holiday season, the first thing I did was perform at the Salaam Café, organised by Rabia and Sakeena (aka Pearls of Islam) in aid of the Rabbani Project‘s fundraising campaign.

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

Me (left) and Rabia of Pearls of Islam at Salaam café, SOAS

This particular installment of Salaam Café was held at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness. The bathrooms even had sensor taps for people so gripped by their anthropology textbooks they didn’t have time to turn the taps on and off.

Even though I’ve been playing and writing music since the age of about 8, and performing since about 16 (15 years ago…starting to feel the years, croak croak), these days it’s rare for me to get on a stage. More and more, however, it feels like it’s a necessary practice in order to maintain my health. I would probably save myself a good deal in chiropractor bills if I was to play more often. (Told you I was feeling old.)

But a number of things have held me back from devoting myself to music properly over all these years. One, in purely practical terms, is that my son puts his fingers in his ears every time I start playing guitar. Not the best encouragement, though I try to stand my ground and not resort to playing Postman Pat in order to appease him.

Likewise, even though night-time might be the right time for some stringed instrument loving, my daughter has the nocturnal sensitivity of a fruit bat and wakes up yelling loudly if I raise my voice over a certain volume.

IMG_3681

So for a long time now I have relegated music to something I did when the kids were away, a guilty pleasure I indulged in during childcare hours when computer work bored me stiff. Now, with them away for Xmas, it feels like I can address music the way it deserves to be addressed: in the first person, as my lawfully wedded partner, and not the bit-on-the-side I’ve shamefully viewed it as.

Another lurking niggle has been the whole issue of music in Islam – more specifically, the prohibition on girls singing in taverns. Having played music in various pubs and bars, I can vouch for the unpleasantness of singing out your heart and soul for a bunch of people either too woozy to take in what you’re saying, so over-enthusiastic you can’t take their reactions seriously, or busy vomiting into someone’s cleavage.

Now, I don’t generally listen to any Muslim authority figure who harangues, wags fingers or can’t remember how to smile; it flies in the face of the Prophetic example of having good manners and speaking with kindness and smiles. Yet their rhetoric can get stuck in the back of the head. Hard-line Muslims will argue that “Anything that leads to bad is bad”. I don’t even know where this statement emerged from, but just running it through some basic logic it becomes clear that at the very least, it cannot be universal.

Let’s take driving, for example. Travelling by car is the most dangerous form of transport on the planet; an estimated 1,240,000 people died last year worldwide. Killing a pedestrian, your passengers (usually your own family) and/or yourself surely qualifies as something that is ‘bad’. Yet we do it most days without thinking.

On the other hand, a good deal of ‘good’ happens as a result of vehicles travelling around the place. In fact, one ambulance alone can save over 4,000 lives every month, while in 2012 only 1,475 people died in the UK in traffic-related deaths. That’s a rather delightful ratio of potential good versus potential harm. By comparison, listening to a song doesn’t cost a penny, pollute the environment OR contribute to political instability in the Middle East. It’s a win-win situation!

From a Sufi perspective, everything has the potential to lead to good, depending on how we handle it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been manifested by the Most Compassionate. As my Yogi Tea aphorism put it today: ‘What hurts you blesses you. Darkness is your candle.’ Thankyou, O Sweet Chai guru.

Sweet Chai guru

Sweet Chai guru

So the (somewhat tired) argument that music leads to ‘bad’ (music videos that degrade women, musicians bloated on glory and money, glorification of drug use etc. etc.) has to be balanced by the good that it can lead to (enjoyment, relaxation, healing, bringing people together, gainful employment for deserving skint people, etc. etc.).

More than any of this ideological browbeating, however, my most compelling excuse for giving up on music (albeit temporarily) was the sudden lurch from joy to despair that always seemed to happen after a concert. The thrill of being warmly received bottomed out almost immediately off stage, replaced by a deep disgust with myself, a complete loss of self-belief, and a feeling that this really wasn’t good for me overall.

But reintroducing music into the Sufilicious environment that I was introduced to it in (having started singing Andalusi and North African qasidas as a child at the dhikrs our families went to), this whole dimension of performance has been transformed for me.

Instead of feeling elevated into some kind of momentary idol and then dropped from the height of my inflated ego and smashing into smithereens, the joy I am not only feeling within but also feeling reflected back from the audience is now merely a trope for the love of (or from?) the Divine that unites us. It’s what makes me want to sing in the first place and what makes them inclined to listen. The stage and the crowd overlap, and the afterglow is real and lasting.

IMG_3663

Just in case anyone hasn’t got the message loud and clear, music has a tangible, cellular effect on the body. It changes us – for better or worse. I spent many, many nights alone in my attic room as a teenager, hugging the child-sized guitar that resonated against my chest and brought it out of numbness and back through pain and into joy again. The classical Islamic world was full of hospitals in which orchestras would play healing music to invalids.

Certain kinds of acoustic music, such as West African kora music or cante jondo flamenco, has a tremendous power to affect my emotions, while bopping like a lunatic to trance changes my heartrate so swiftly that the novelty quickly wears off. Cuban salsa and Brazilian samba get me dancing for joy, as does Congolese rumba. South African gospel fills me like a sail. Bulgarian choral music sends me to a strange alternative universe of harmony and dissonance.

The relationship between art and pain is so well documented it has become easy to view it as myth. You can study how to write songs or poetry, after all, and being a professional means getting the job done, not waiting for inspiration to spring out of suffering. Yet the bond is still there, indestructably. Art in whatever form will always be the artist’s favourite way to self-medicate. And it’s not just a drug to numb the symptoms while corroding the taker’s overall health: it’s medicine. Any bitter side-effects are just a sign of the cure about to occur.

1451382_756163931066762_51885419_n

For those readers who are in London at the moment (or who can easily get there), I’ll be performing again this Saturday at South Kilburn studios as part of the Rumi’s Cave end-of-year fest. In the meantime, I have promised myself not only to write a poem at day (even if it is crap), but also to give some serious time to music, and even – inshallah! – get a satisfying amount of recording done on my new album. As Rumi said, ‘There is no grace without discipline’.

See, now I have no excuse. You have my permission to chase me up about it. In the meantime, I wish you all a joyous Christmas, complete with chestnuts roasting on an open fire – and not a double entendre in sight.