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at SOAS, my old alma mater…I calculated that it had been 8 years since I’d been back, and the anarchic feel had largely been replaced by a more sober, grown-up air of studiousness.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.


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.


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.


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.

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 Peace It Pivots On



I used to look for answers
in the warp and weft around
wondered what this fabric would be like
once each crease and pull had been
ironed flat, stretched out, stitched good.

The expanse of cloth was so endless it
hurt my eyes to keep looking
and all direction pulled me
’til I’d spun a skein of doubts
and arguments so thick their
soft accretion left me suffocated.

But every spool has a core
an empty space at its dead centre
where the dynamo that clothed it
finds the peace it needs to pivot on
the point of light in this vast swathe
that veils like night and we’re
the pinpricks in it where the Infinite
decided to break through the cloth
of matter so we’d see.

Instead of looking for my needs out on
savannahs of plain cloth, I looked
into the emptiness within to catch
a heartful of that Light and then
the landscape fell quite smooth,
caught diamonds as they thundered
from the sky. They are
the grains that form as Light contracts
upon our atmosphere, the mirrored discs
we sew upon our dress to make like
we’re that night, here are our stars,
to spin our skirts and get tangled again
instead of staying still and owning nothing.

This is the night. We are its stars.


Lutfi and Ruby Ridwan’s Halal Organic Farm

There is pressing debate going on in the Muslim world in the moment – well, one of the more interesting ones, at least. It’s about what really constitutes ‘halal’ food; much of what is sold as such is actually the worst kind of battery farmed chicken, pumped with hormones (even porcine ones) and water to plump them up, antibiotics to keep them vaguely healthy despite the horrific conditions they have to live in….and then slaughtered en masse in machine-driven abbatoir with a tape of Qur’an playing in the background. Hardly what I’d call a religious ritual, unless the religion is capitalism.

On the other hand, the recommendations surrounding the food we eat, from an Islamic perspective, go way beyond just slitting an animal’s throat. Animals, fish, plants and every living creature falls under the khulafa (or custodianship) of human beings; therefore, we not only have to care for these creatures, but also the soil, air and water that keeps them and us alive. Animals in particular should not see or even hear other animals being slaughtered, or even hear the knife being sharpened; they need to be especially pampered for the last few days of their lives, and the knife must be so sharp they do not feel the incision.

With regard to horticulture, so much imagery about gardens and orchards abound in the Qur’an that it really makes you want to get your wellies on and go gardening. The astonishing feat that nature performs every day, every minute, infinitessimal shreds of matter bursting into life and creating not only food, medicine, fibres, oil and dozens of other things, but also hundreds of other seeds to do the same all over again, is really enough to give you some kind of green-thumbed epiphany.

I watched this video and remembered why I am living in the sticks!

And the Prize for the Narrowest Mind Goes To…

That great genius for inter-religious tolerance, Richard Dawkins, has finally come out and tweeted it: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”


Apart from the obvious steps that will surely ensue, the official banning of Islam in all European nations for being counter to human development, the jetting of all outlaw Muslims to the moon (while the far right complains that it was their tax money that built them the interstellar asylum centre), and the honouring of this day in history as Democracy Day, I have a few points I’d like to make to Signeur Dawkins.


Firstly, how much would he expect to have achieved if his nation was the colonised, rather than the colonising? (Repeat argument ad infinitum regarding various Muslim countries and various, in some cases nearly incessant, occupations).


Secondly, what kind of achievements was he hoping we’d make? The invention of the atom bomb? For all the ‘achievements’ of the non-Muslim world (and that is about as laughably reductive a label as ‘the Muslim world’ is), it has succeeded in destroying more of our natural resources in 100 years than in the entire history of humankind, with no sign of that rate slowing. Nice work.


Alfred Nobel, chilling.

Alfred Nobel, chilling.

Thirdly, what does a Nobel Prize actually constitute? Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and celebrated it by instigating drone strikes on Pakistan. Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres won it in 1994 for their efforts in establishing peace in the Middle East; not sure we saw much of that. Nelson Mandela had to share his in 1993 with the then South African president Frederik W. de Klerk, who sure as hell didn’t have to suffer as much for ending apartheid as Mandela did (and who only seemed to allow it because it was interfering with the country’s economy). How much are Nobel prizes genuine reflections of truly marvellous work, rather than simply reflections of what people want to see?


Come to think of it, the number of women who have received Nobel Prizes are markedly low, too. Could it be that – don’t take this the wrong way – they aren’t up to much either? Did womankind peak in the Middle Ages, as well?


I am frankly astonished that anyone widely considered to be intelligent could judge people’s ‘achievements’ in such grotesquely blunt terms as how many prizes they win. The logical next step is to judge them for how many letters after their names they have, how much money they earn, how many followers on Twitter they have. Could it be that this is the criteria by why Richard Dawkin’s own achievements are judged?


He might as well ask how many Far Eastern countries they have chemically defoliated/nuked, how many massively polluting conglomerate companies they run, how many politicians kowtow to their industries, how many diseases they cure whilst a dozen super-resistant ones emerge, how many useless theories they come up with, how many tons of plastic junk they have to ship to other countries to bury each year, how obese their population is, or how mentally ill they are. If any of these things are a measure of a given society’s value, then the West wins first prize for Unflinching Devotion to the Cause of Humanity’s Destruction.


Regardless of the fact that Muslims are not immune to the odd Nobel (or indeed any of the bozo-like behaviour cited above), I am deeply suspicious of any argument that seems to judge the worth of a people’s existence by the sort of thing one might put on a CV to impress a future employer. If that is all you have achieved, you have really achieved very little.


The 'achievement' involved in this family crest was apparently subduing a badger with nothing more than a couple of ostrich feathers.

The ‘achievement’ involved in this family crest was apparently subduing a small zoo with nothing more than a couple of ostrich feathers.

You might have written bestsellers, but do you friends trust you? You might have a PhD but do your children hate you? You might have millions of fans but are you incapable of having a loving relationship? You might earn a ton of money, but is it all sitting in high-interest accounts or shares in unethical mining or arms companies, while the people around you are eating tinned dog food? You might have earned the praise and admiration of your peers, but does the old lady at the Post Office secretly call you ‘that pompous, rude git who swans about like he owns the place and couldn’t tell a joke if it bit him in the arse’?


Achievement has about as much to do with what looks good on paper as beauty has to do with plastic surgery. What have Muslims contributed in the last 500 years or so? Many millions of tiny acts of kindness that no newspaper would bother printing and no organisation would bother stumping up the cash for an awards ceremony to celebrate.


Dealing with your own self – though most Muslims certainly don’t spend a whole lot of time doing that – is a far more difficult task than going to university, getting a job, and rising up the career ladder, gathering accolades on the way. You can employ all sorts of underhanded methods in the latter, but in the former, only ruthless self-accounting and discipline will work – and that doesn’t get you any certificate.


Humility, disinterested acts of kindness, generosity, service to others, being the kind of everyday hero that doesn’t demand a medal – these acts are elevated in Islam to the rank of achievement, far more than winning a battle or having your critics pat you on the back for that paper you just published.

The higher you climb in this world, the further you have to fall. In contrast, practising non-attachment to the world whilst caring for it is surely the greatest challenge humanity faces.


Living on a floating island of human debris certainly keeps all the undesirables away, though I can't say it's got a stable real estate value

Living on a floating island of human debris certainly keeps all the undesirables away, though I can’t say it’s got a stable real estate value

Dawkin’s statement rings so loudly with hubris that surely it is only a matter of time before everyone but the far right (who will have to build a high-security settlement on one of those floating islands of plastic in the Atlantic, in order to be free from all these underachieving Muslims and that horribly contagious plague, Shariah law) begins to see through the flimsy smokescreen that worldly success presents.


Now wouldn’t that be an achievement?

MIrrors Have Moved Up In The World


I don’t know when,
mirrors were
still pools of water
and the faces in them
downcast, eyes glowing
in reflected light.
When we first learned
how we looked
it was as
thinkers, mourners,
cradlers of sleepy
children. In this
humbled curve
we discovered our
own surprised selves
in unexpected
ponds, saw there
our naked souls.

Now mirrors have
moved up in the world.
We peer in, eye to eye,
shoulders back, a photo
booth’s rectangular frame.
We preen our feathers
and imagine how
the world must meet us.
This reflection is hard
as ice, as diamond;
no curious fingertip
can turn the surface
to soup or circles
or drop in a shell
to listen for its depth.
The image returns
impassively and we
cannot wet our hands in it
or take a piece in palm
to scrutinise
and scatter.

Some empowerment
program’s elevated
mirrors to Wall Status.
Now they’re immune
to dirty feet,
to fishing nets
and worn-out rags.
Whatever tears
or snarls they witness
there’s no change
in temperature.
Folds of shawls
no longer hang towards
but drop down
To bow our heads
we lose sight
of this vision.
In steel the mirrors
have become
our equals.

The Night A Thief Showed Me Freedom

We were at a restaurant in Soho, one of those brightly-lit places with stylish wallpaper that lures designers and their ilk into this grimy crease on London’s streetmap, in which creep junkies, tourists in sunhats, reckless rickshaw riders, jazz joints and telephone boxes so filthy they make you clutch your mobile like a prayer book.


S and I had been friends back in sixth form; she was about the only person I’d stayed in touch with since then, and had later moved to London herself to work. There is always something slightly giddy about meeting up with old friends. Each successive year intensifies the conversation you eventually have, compressing the changes into a solid mass, studded with events.

For my part (I’ll let her tell her own), I’d had my second child, got divorced, and fallen in love. See what I mean? So much upheaval and transformation – both painful and wonderful – condensed into one sentence. What is even more amazing is that after those potent little phrases pop out, with the shock and laughter that ensue, it feels like you can talk about anything, fluidly, easily. The stopper is wrenched off and the most intimate information pours out.

So engaged we must have been in our conversation that when it came to pay the bill, and I discovered a dusty corner where my bag should have been – right beneath my feet – I realised that it could have been an hour before that a thief had sneaked in the door and somehow (“Perhaps they used a crutch”, the policeman suggested afterwards) made off with my shoulder bag. It was a busy night. Soho is like that. The consolation, at the time, was that the restaurant owner said she’d let us off the bill.

We walked S’s bike, ticking, through the throngs of people getting progressively more smashed until we found a police station – checking the bins, fruitlessly, along the way, in case the thief had dumped the important stuff (i.e. my passport).

The police station was just closing up as we arrived, but an earnest, shortish man in uniform led us down to the basement where the graveyard shift was coming to life in order to make the report. Oh, that basement. If the theft alone wasn’t enough to deter me from visiting Soho again at night, the photos of criminals papering the walls along with details of what they were wanted for (dangerous dogs, rape, drug dealing, arson, assault, prostitution, mugging…) certainly would.

But like the dramas of the recent past that we had just been pondering over our wild mushroom risottos, this little drama, in comparison, was quite hilariously small. The immediacy of it brought our patience and good humour out in their most rarified forms. We must have sat for nearly an hour in that bunker of criminal terrors, listening to the amiable banter of the other policemen and being offered berry-flavoured tea, before strolling out – me significantly less encumbered – into the crisp night air.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

I remember it as being a summer night, but logically it must have been sometime in April. Yet the sense of lightness was pervasive and strong. It spread to my feet, which still had their shoes on; to my hands, which were now freed to swing about instead of anxiously clutching at a bag full of important documents; to my head, mercifully still not processing all the boring bureaucratic details of getting an emergency passport in the two days I had before my flight back to Spain.

In a strange sort of way, moments like these make me happy to be unfortunate. Crises are never so critical when you take away the stress of thinking about them. It’s just another situation that need to be dealt with, like mopping up a spilt juice or lump of porridge thrown by a toddler exercising her triceps.

Generosity surfaces when a friend is in trouble, too. I borrowed S’s phone to call ahead, and she lent me her Oyster card with just enough on it to get where I needed to go. (Thankyou S!) Then a friend of a friend, who I’d never met, came to meet me at the Tube station. I suppose it was hard to mistake the one person getting off the train without any personal belongings.

What made it all the more blissful was arriving at a Sufi gathering among delightful people, singing and drinking tea and eating Turkish delight into the wee hours. I had sailed from central London to the outskirts, to a dark recess of Tottenham, constantly amazed at how little I had to worry about now that everything had gone. What else could anyone take?

That was when I realised how much of a strain it is having objects, possessions, and especially gadgets, most of which are supposedly meant to make life easier.

How much more stressful is life when you are constantly having to check beeping machines dangling from your person? Or clutching at bags containing collections of mainly useless things in case someone makes off with them, wanting the two or three useful bits and throwing the rest away? How much grief is spared when those scenarios are not imaginatively played out, recurrently, like scenes from a bad, made-for-TV film in which the actors aren’t getting paid? (See this previous post for more on that.)

And once I was reunited with my kids a few days later, my secondary realisation was that I spent a lot of my time with them in much the same way as I had been attending to my supposedly helpful possessions. “Oh, my son just beeped” – “I think she’s running out of batteries, better get home and put her on charge” – “WHERE ARE MY – oh, there they are” etc. etc.

There is so much unnecessary anxiety surrounding possession. Once you bust the notion that anything is actually yours in the first place – especially a human being – then the issue becomes more one of maintenance. There are steps needed to be taken to get from situation A (passport stolen/kitchen window broken/someone on my car seat) to situation B (emergency passport is reissued/kitchen window is fixed/car seat is clean). It ends up getting done at some point. The steps involved aren’t that painful, really.

The stress in the middle comes from believing that something is YOUR PROPERTY, and therefore you should get enraged or upset when something happens to it. If, instead of freaking out when ‘something goes wrong’, you pause and consider that nobody is dead (unless they actually are – in which case there’s not much you can do anyway), and everything passes, including horrible family moments involving swearwords, spitting, hitting, excluding, crying, breaking toys, slamming doors and all the rest, then it is easier to feel free.

It is genuinely possible to be a mother and shrug your shoulders when someone has a minor wound, and even to discipline the offending child while remaining calm and practical. I have seen it happen. It sounds out of this world, but it is true.

My usual reaction, on the other hand, is to yell. Or groan. But – and here’s where the patient, non-attached mother has a better time of it – if you can pause and observe dispassionately, is having a hissy fit really going to achieve anything? Generally it does little more than cause headaches, give me a sore throat, deepen frown lines, hurt little ears and send kids into a sulk.

More to the point, though, what is causing that volcanic feeling in the first place? POSSESSION. IT’S MINE. In the case of having a mum-fit, THE FAMILY AMBIENCE IS MINE. I have envisaged it, read dozens of parenting books, and spent years cultivating it. Therefore, IT IS MINE. When it all goes pear-shaped, something has been stolen from me. I have lost control. The image of a perfect family that I have been dreaming of is gone, and now I am clutching after it as if it were a phantom purse, recently snatched by a serial scumbag.

As confessionals go, this might not be so enjoyable to read – especially if you hear yourself shrieking at your kids frequently, or saying incriminating thing your parents used to say to you. The good news is this: THERE IS FREEDOM AT THE OTHER END OF THE CRISIS.

When our baggage is too heavy, we instinctively want to rid ourselves of it – and sometimes it’ll break a few greenhouse windows as it goes down. But there is lightness, too, and that is the important thing. Detaching yourself from the concepts of who or how your kids (or you) should be creates room in your being for a lot of joy. That makes for a much more beautiful experience of parenthood, and of life.

In short, travel light. It’s not worth paying the lockers along the way.

Creativity and the Dervish

I’ve been quiet lately on this blog, in fact ever since being Freshly Pressed (rather a nice feeling, a bit like being squashed through a mangle – perhaps this explains my new juicing craze). But it’s been an interesting hiatus.

I finally got round to reading Stephen Pressfield‘s fantastically insightful ‘The War of Art’, a book destined for people who have always nursed a dream to do some life-defining act of creativity, or make a longed-for enterprise a reality, or take on a spiritual practice – in short, anything that leads the soul from a lower state to a higher one – and yet who consistently find ways to sabotage their own fulfilment. Why, you ask? Because of Private Enemy Number One: Resistance.

Resistance, Pressfield declares, is that part of you that makes up excuses for not doing whatever activity it is that will satisfy the soul’s longing: ‘I’m not ready yet’, ‘I just need to sort out a few things first’, ‘I need to learn more’, ‘People will laugh at me for trying,’ ‘It’ll probably be rubbish’, ‘I have so many other interests, too’, and ‘Just one more click on YouTube’. (The Internet is Resitance’s evil twin sibling.)


(Copyright M Whiteman, 2012)

Looking around my house, I have discovered that it is in fact a monument to my own Resistance. Instead of finishing the immensely personal novel that I have been trailing around behind me like a liferaft on a rope for the last ten years, I have made ragdolls, clothes for ragdolls, patchwork quilts, clothes for myself and the Cavekids, toy tomatoes out of felt, an unfinished wooden kitchen, an unfinished wooden doll’s house, pillows and blankets for said doll’s house, a panoply of cardboard houses and cars, and umpteen origami animals, paper darts, glue paintings of dried flowers, pipe cleaner people and animals. Even the poems, short stories, articles, and paintings I produce ad hoc are a kind of distraction from the real oeuvre I need to be doing. (Let’s not even mention the blog…)

The core message of the War of Art is that the more you fear doing something, the more you shy away from doing it and find something more pleasant or immediately gratifying to do, the more important it is to your souls’ evolution.

The similarity to Sufism’s call to beware of the nafs (lower self, ego) while on the path of God-consciousness is striking. Pressfield’s theory is based on Jung’s concept of the ego as being a tiny dot in a much larger sphere of consciousness called the Self, which is not confined to the individual but in fact is a part of the collective consciousness. This Self derives its existence from Divine ground.


(Copyright Pmisak, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

The ego doesn’t like the Self; its vastness makes it feel threatened and small, so the ego reacts by attacking our desire to transcend it, belittling our efforts, convincing us that it is hopeless or stupid to do so, and justifying itself with a catalogue of perfectly rational proofs why.

However, if the soul’s evolution depends upon traversing a path that is sometimes actually torture to carry out, then it becomes clear that there is not always just one path that will yield fruits for the hungering soul. A mother with small children who yearns to complete an artistic odyssey is one example. (Hello!)

Here’s is where it starts getting complicated. Your children aren’t part of your ego. They are an astonishing, miraculous, and frequently insanely testing part of your experience on this planet. We don’t NEED an artistic odyssey to give us this arduous voyage of self-discovery; we have one right here in front of us. It keeps us up all night screaming with teething pain, or pukes all over your nice dress when you are about to go out, or tells you that it doesn’t like the cool recycled cardboard castle you’ve just spent hours constructing for it. Your patience, resolve, ingenuity, wisdom and wits are challenged on a daily basis. Why bother looking for ANOTHER vehicle that will do the same thing on a creative or entrepreneurial level?

The answer, I believe, lies in the experience of the creative process. Opening the floodgates of creativity takes you out of the tiny, cramped niche that your ego sits in and takes you out into the wide open plains of the Self. Insights emerge naturally, as though you are simply a bird flying over a landscape, spotting a fish in a river below.

(Copyright George Burba, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

This flight is something that every single human being needs – and needs frequently. Once you have a taste for it, you develop a thirst that will see you pushing yourself to your absolute limits of tiredness to return there. How do we get to that state, that supra-individual consciousness? I reckon there are four ways to effect it: spiritually-intended rituals (prayer, meditation), creative expression, orgasm, and so-called mind-expanding drugs.

Let’s think about it for a minute. In a society where the first of these four has all but been banished by consumerist fetishism and rabidly anti-traditional rhetoric, what is left to us? We seek that enlivening expansion in music, in dance, in sex, in drugs. But in each of those phases, another element is added, another bargaining chip for the ego that wants to sabotage the beauty and simplicity of that experience, until in the last one the unavoidable fact of physical addiction and possible destruction comes into play.

There is no avoiding our need for leaping beyond the bounds of our tiny minds and feeling united with all beings, for having a taste of Being itself. My experience of creative writing really is like gliding through in a current of feelings, images, ideas and meanings that seem to come from way beyond oneself. Writing a story feels like teasing it out of the ether and into materiality, through no other talent of your own than some kind of literary mediumship.

But this is a world that needs guides, that requires discipline. Shamans don’t learn their art by a desultory glance at Wikipedia. Dervishes don’t become dervishes by wearing the latest trend in woollen robes. Great artists, those whose egos are eclipsed by the light they transmit from this expansive realm, don’t become great by faffing about on Facebook all day. We live in a society that is so driven by the need to keep people spending, to keep people consuming, to keep people insecure enough to feel they need some new product, that fighting against this tide is in itself a herculean task.

That is why it is so worthwhile. That is why creativity is a poke in the eye for the crushingly hollow culture of shopping and consumption that so strangles us. That is why, even when there are a million and one necessities tearing my attention in all directions, I will stay up late whenever I can and leave the dishes for the morning, to write, to dream, to fly.


(Copyright Krishgun01, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

N.B. I just watched John Cleese’s excellent talk on creativity and entering the playful, open state of mind necessary for it – it’s well worth a watch.

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.


The muzzled wolves have
ceased their baying
distracted by juicy
bones thrown down
by poet’s pentips

the other side of the
hill we creep
footfalls as soft as snow
hearing the crunch of
Another’s approach
crisp crackling in
dry tindersticks
urging a fire
to flush out
all the beasts

We near the peak
hearts banging the
drumskin of chests
night phosphorescent cloud
drifting apart unveils moon
like hands from eyes
made bold with curiosity
throws silver light on hikers
emerging from our private horizons
seeking the rendezvous we’ve waited for
since we first were blown into the
brittle glass vials of bodies and lost
the warmth of that Friend’s lips

Now reunion is calling

We climb
at a breathless pace
but the One we
ache to meet
comes to us