Three Translucent Fans

It might seem, from the digital distance of the internet, that the Cave has been pretty quiet of late. From this side of the screen, however, it’s been a time of intense internal activity, which I have cunningly disguised as laziness.

Various family crises, housing disasters, veterinary emergencies, bureaucratic worries and work woes combined into a whirling maelstrom of angst, which left me fairly convinced that if I’d gone to a doctor I would have been put on some strong medication. Thank God I had no health insurance and therefore didn’t have the choice.

 Big dog, big vet bills.

Thus a month of near-lunacy culminated in a trip up to Alqueria de Los Rosales, a conference centre complete with mosque (designed by my very own padre) and lodgings in a remote, starkly beautiful corner of the Granada province. The attraction was a retreat organised by my favourite fellow Cavepeople, Rumi’s Cave. Sheikh Babikir and Imam ‘Abdul-Lateef Finch were there to blast gibbering wrecks like myself back into shiny shape again through the medium of dhikr. By the time I left I felt free again, impervious to fear and stress; I felt like a ghoul whose hand had been constantly clutching at my throat had now been banished back to the underworld.

‘Adhkurni fa-adhkurkum’, so the Qur’an tells us: ‘Remember Me and I will remember you’. Pretty straightforward it would seem. It’s the antithesis of the current climate of ultra-distractability; you don’t need me to start listing websites – you know the prime culprits. Why are we suckers for it, when FB does such spectacularly insensitive acts as deliberately manipulating the positive or negative content of nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds in an experiment to see if they would post more negative or positive posts?

We citizens of the Internetic Republic are dimly aware of the way in which Flabberbook uses our self-created profiles to ‘teach’ advertisers how to market to us better, yet the entertainment value of a Friskies advert in which an older cat introduces the new kitten to the bad monster ‘Vac-cuum’ blots out our outrage, and we’re back to skimming through endless amounts of other peoples’ suggestions (some of which are so good that we keep going back again in the hopes of more). Horror at some story about kids in a refugee camp is swiftly replaced by cooing over a friend’s new baby. The margins of our emotional experience narrow; the world is siphoned into a stream of information that seems ever blander; the highs and lows are cycled through with an ever increasing numbness.

So remembrance – dhikr – works as a kind of unseen Fairy liquid on the congealed fat of our consciousness, biting through it to the clear Pyrex of our souls with unbeatable efficiency (do one get 70,000 rewards free!). You could term it mindfulness, too; either way you are retreating from the illusion on the periphery – of past and future, out there on the antipodes of our horizons – to the centre of the circle, to the present, to reality, that mind-bendingly beautiful Divine space.

Just before leaving for the Rumi’s Retreat, a friend, on hearing for the nth time my sorrows, simply said: ‘It’s just a reminder to stay present in your heart.’ A very Sufi statement one might say, or a New Age one; but labels don’t do justice to the sense of this approach. For a lot of us, it’s easier said than done, though. ‘How do I go back into my heart?!’ the mind wails, banging on the bars of the cage it built for itself. But it isn’t something that can be done mentally. Jabbering thoughts have to stop for a while for you to see that you don’t simply disappear off the map when you stop thinking, as Descartes must have imagined we did. 

Once you quiet the white noise of worry (or nostalgia, or mulling over negative thoughts, or just chattering away to yourself after having a coffee like my brain does), there’s the most exquisite expansiveness. There’s peace. There doesn’t have to be someone taking a selfie of them feeling peaceful – it’s just the peace, that’s all there is.

Poised on the brink of something big.

Poised on the brink of something big.

 

I was reminded of this deep, oceanic calm, and the phenomenally creative potential within in, when facilitating a poetry workshop at the Rumi’s retreat, together with Abbas Zahedi, head honcho of Rumi’s Cave in North London. There is so much to be said about literary form, information I don’t retain well and find myself itching to subvert at the next opportunity. Most classes that ‘teach’ poetry get stuck straight into spondees before you can say ‘iambic pentametre’.

But before the writing begins, there is a kind of pre-poetry that has to be found. It’s the same vast, unpredictable inner space that dhikr generates, that you experience in dreams, that becomes plain in meditation or prayer (at least, when you don’t have your kids hanging off you while you’re trying to pray). You don’t get there by memorising techniques or following arbitrary rules: every person has their own shortcut there, and they need to find their own way to it. (You can find some of my favourite writing prompts to get you off the diving board and into water here.)

It is always extraordinary to see people who regard themselves as beginners, as non-writers, dip their toes into these tremendous waters within, slowly build up confidence, and finally plunge their heads under, coming up with pearls. There is nothing like it for me, and the work produced is of an amazing quality: frank, curious, observant, wise.

Any old thing can be the springboard for this process, but you need confidence to know that it doesn’t matter what you come up with. Sometimes it’ll be nothing but an old boot, a baked bean can, a broken tile, a bicycle wheel, a bone. They’re all specimens of something surprising and somehow meaningful, in the way that dreams often sound like gibberish to anyone else but to the dreamer they tell a story.

Amazing what you might find down there.

Amazing what you might find down there.

And it’s surprising how good the the formal aspect of the writing often is, quite intuitively. But even if it isn’t, no matter. You can spend weeks planning out the design of a dress, but without the raw materials you’ll never get one made. To take another analogy, all the strongest tomato plants in my garden grew by themselves out of a well-tended compost heap. Give your subconscious some oxgyen and you’ll be astounded at what will come out of it

So these three lenses of my world have folded over one another like translucent fans, each one pointing in to the same message: come back to your centre. Anxiety and social media are just significantly more irksome variations on the lesson given by dhikr: come back to your centre. The glitter and drama of the world beyond is alluring but it’s a shimmering screen which dies the moment the plug is pulled on it. Come back! Come back to your core! Nothing else will ever seem so alive again.

I’ll be doing more workshops over the summer, kindling creativity all over the UK (details on workshops to come – stay tuned for more info). If you would like me to do one at your school, community centre or other venue please email me on medinatenourwhiteman (@) gmail (dot) com. Ramadan Kareem!

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Here is the News (That Never Happened)

Oh, the peculiar fears I carry around with me.

A black and green dirty rucksack, for example, deposited on the floor by an empty table where I sit to have my coffee that gets me thinking: who does it belong to? I ask around politely, and nobody knows. Could – and this is the very first possibility that springs to mind – someone have left it there with a bomb inside?

This is how my imagination works. Let´s just say I can get quite creative with my paranoias. So I begin calculating what kind of rucksack a terrorist would use to leave a bomb in this haven of depravity – I mean, cake shop – in Plaza Larga, Granada. Would it be a slightly grubby one, like this specimen? You´d think that such a decisive moment in the life of a hardcore extremist would warrant a bit of spit and polish. Isn´t there something in the suicide bomber´s handbook that regulates nice, neat backpacks in order to avoid raising suspicions? Or it is more suspicious to carry a brand spanking new rucksack?

 

Already exhausted with these worries – which have raced through my head in the time it takes to open a packet of sugar – I start to think, if it is an explosive device, I am the nearest person to it. I´ll be obliterated. Balls. I should´ve sat round the other side of the biscuit display.

I wonder at the irony of it, a Muslim woman being the first one obliterated by a supposedly Islamic poke in the eye of Western consumerism. Damn those walnut-embellished cookies! Just thinking about the decadence of this chocolate-encrusted institution would make the average al-Qaeda neophyte turn crimson with fury. The irony, of course, is that they would see me, with my long blonde locks shamelessly exposed and assorted prints and patterns and fringed knits, looking more like a walking circus act than the kind of subdued woman they expect Muslim women to be, and I would be lumped in with all the other infidels.

Yet I would rather run that (admittedly infinitessimally small) risk than to succumb to the fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t. What I fear most is to wear my fear as a cape, not in order to protect my precious body from the rapacious gazes of the barbarian hordes, but for fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t.

Whichever way I turn, fear stands with its steel toe-capped boots blocking the doorway, an amalgam of Hollywood psychopaths (as Wednesday Addams said to explain her lack of a Halloween costume, “I´ve come as a homicidal maniac. They look like everyone else”), a cartoon demon, a cardboard ghoul, a carjacking kidnapper, an ideological lunatic bent on purging the world of evil by, er, blowing it up, and, inexplicably, my high school P.E. teacher, Ms Haversham.

All of these fears are constantly bubbling, morphing, accreting new dimensions with every newspaper I read, evolving into a vaster and more powerful tyrant with every day I allow it to reign.

The craziest thing of all is that all of these fears are completely and utterly hypothetical. I have never personally been kidnapped, or murdered by a Samurai sword wielding teeange mob, or blown to smithereens by anti-Westernisation madmen. I have never even been verbally condemned by a Muslim man for my Western appearance; on the contrary, being an Anglo-American Muslim sometimes generates a little too much interest for my liking.

 All of my fears are completely illogical, but the subconscious does not respond to logic unless you pin it down and shine a 1,000 candlelight torch down its throat. Until I do that, my head will continue to be the most dangerous place in the world.

In the meantime, a stubbly, student-type young man comes out of the loo, picks up his rucksack and leaves. The safety of my immediate surroundings remain unviolated. A million tiny acts of disinterested generosity, kindness, and love take place undocumented all over the world, while I have spent twenty minutes running through a worst case scenario so improbable that I am more likely to be struck by lightning whilst playing a flute on a mountaintop. Dressed as a blueberry.

Psychological studies show that bad news is more memorable than good news. So the 99% of the time in which no violent theft is taking place, no verbal abuse being slung, no building blown up, no airplane hijacked, no child bullied, no alien invasion happening, are not documented in any way. It just isn´t as interesting. That 99% of events remains, like the 99% of people with 1% of the wealth, anonymous.

I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule of non-newsworthy events to read this article, in which no brains were devoured by zombies, no old ladies were killed in their homes by burglars, and absolutely no animals were harmed in any way. Thankyou. Feel free to carry on living your lives, a little bit happier, I hope, for them to be non-newsworthy.