There’s a snowstorm that appears
in the pauses when an orderly screen
of jewelley squares, mind-temptations
falls blank as though thinking
a shower of sparks that tumbles
the way this screen tumbled
from my hands to hit a Tehran pavement
as my excitement at the sight of an
old-style bakery–its heap of tiny pebbles
just visible through an arched eye,
golden in the flames
streaks of dough sliding gradually down
like hot ice floes–
fuelled my eagerness to capture it
grab a slice to serve back home at
tea parties
the triumphant traveller
returning with pockets stuffed with
nougat and Persian candy floss and
musings on this new foreignness (being
a foreigner everywhere myself)
but here the glass shattered
and the voyage out of the heart’s homeland
into the planes of mind and possession
is now scarred with an exquisite
flurry of cracks
a weeping willow
Japanese etched wave
interrupting the illusion
so I have to read around it
even though the glass is temporarily
held together with sticky tape
the destruction is not undone, only
left hanging in a perpetual crash
delighting in breaking up the sleekness
of my gadget like a Greek wedding guest
Oh the joy of smashing!
Of tearing at the cardboard box we call
and shredding it to papery flakes!
throwing knick-knacks to the rocks
not fearing their demise
but glorying in the glory
drifting through the drifts
as liquid as a seaward current
as light as a seeker’s last breath
and as golden as the inner glow
that no screen could ever frame!

The Loneliest Tearoom in India


We left at nightfall
Delhi still ringing in my ears
the menacing rickshaw driver
the protective tuktuk driver
and now this bus, a pencil case
on wheels conducted by a man with
lips stained red with betel nut.
I sat at the front. I wore a loose headscarf
but how to mask the whiteness?
The woman beside me gladly made
sign language conversation for a while
til our vocabulary ran out.
All this time a man with a white
handlebar moustache was scrutinising me.
“Madame,” he said at last, “when you are asleep
you look like doll.”
I could not sleep much after that.
The turns, so thoughtfully marked
with yellow signs that wrung their hands
in big black letters:
“Always Alert Avoid Accident”…
“Someone at home wants you to return safe”…
while the betel in the driver’s blood
pressed the pedal into the floor
almost wearing a hole
turning the wheel with violent grace
and even though rocks tumbled down
into the glossy void over the edge
down in the Himalayan crooks
we could not see them land.
The wheels kept their footing.
My stomach, however, did not.
It slid about upon the vinyl seats
barely contained by my thin skin
wringing itself to squeeze out
that cheap thali I had wolfed
but when we stopped, blinking by moonlight,
the latrines seemed worse so
on we oscillated
round the mountain’s shoulders
road a snakeskin through the glacial dark
and at one moment someone asked me
“What’s your name, Madam?”
I answered honestly. They wondered
why? So I replied. They shrieked
with glee, or horror:
“She’s a Muslim?”
In between the wracking pains now
I was sobbing, still too teenaged to
admit the tears to strangers.
Finally two young men with
much more reasonable moustaches
offered me some herbs for stomach pains
and then a bidi, which I smoked out of
the back window. The others asked my pardon,
though I was not sure if this were
initiation into some strange
Indian social rite.
As dawn let colour flood back down
the mountains, trees emerged
a perpendicular gorge
a river cavorting at its feet.
We paused for breakfast and latrines.
This time I was not so particular.
The chai was good, the teacakes edible.
Steel cups; you must avoid the rims
for hygiene’s sake. Low knocked-together
wooden stools and tables. The loneliest tearoom
in India. We embarked again,
our destination Manali, town of hashish,
long-eared rabbits, dreadlocked Germans and
vast heights. But Manali, curious as it was,
never did shake off that bus trip.
Once we reached Leh
after four by four, trek, pony ride
and rooftop hitchhike
I did the journey back
by plane.

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.