Muslim Things: Surprisingly Not Scary

  It’s impossible not to notice them. They appear in social network newsfeeds, they appear in the news, in the comments on the news, in conversations overhead on café terraces. At times you can almost see them being thought.
  They are the fears that flit across the minds of anyone who has ever come into contact with a Muslim. Or, more potently, who has ever read the word without ever having met a Muslim. The word has taken on a shape-shifting life of its own, at times monstruous and shadowy, at others defiant and political; the silhouette of it morphs on the screen, taking on the prickly subjects around it and shuffling forward under the burden of their horrors.
  And yet at other times, and sometimes even more intensely on Facebook than anywhere else, it is a key to a vast wonderland of commonalities, of shared loves and expansions, of the imagined song of a nightingale pondering how to attain the rose, of the sorrow of separation into individual bodies when the spirit longs for union again, of the thunder that joy makes in the heart when this long-for proximity is felt. All of this depends on the projections of the thinker, on the bed the word receives in their brain.
  However it beds down in yours, it is never a neutral name. It does not inspire visions of light-hearted, frolicsome, or jovial people, skipping happily through life.
  In the spirit of addressing the imbalance of contexts in which the word ‘Muslim’ appears (take, for instance, ‘Muslim Rage’, ‘Muslim patriarchal values’, ‘Muslim traditions’…) I would like to suggest a few new nomenclatures.
  How about ‘Muslim Badminton?’
  Or ‘Muslim Knitting’?
  Or ‘Muslim Strawberry Farms’?
  We could really go to town here, in our invented, happy-go-lucky Muslim world, where there are no issues surrounding us like swathes of barbed wire, and we are generally pootling along, enjoying life. (Feel free to add your own Muslim Things in the comments!)
  How about…

  ‘Muslim Surfing’
  ‘Muslim Theatre’
  ‘Muslim Fudge’
  ‘Muslim Upcycling’
  ‘Muslim Capoeira’
  ‘Muslim Bake-Sales’
  ‘Muslim Poetry Slams’
  ‘Muslim Silversmithing’
  ‘Muslim Face-painting’
  ‘Muslim Nurseries’
  ‘Muslim Permaculture’
  ‘Muslim Neo-Choirs’
  ‘Muslim Jam Sessions’
  ‘Muslim Skating’
  ‘Muslim Hiking Clubs’
  ‘Muslim Soup Kitchens’
  ‘Muslims Holding Hands at the Movies’

  It is curious how often even I expected myself to write something involving a revolution, repressive regime or Scud missile.
  How inculcated a sense of a word becomes; I would like to do as gay people did when they inverted the sense of the word Queer and made it something they could be proud of.
  In a way, the analogy is not so off the wall. If you were to round up all the gay people in the world, you’d be sure to find a decent dose of substance abusers, HIV positives, sociopaths, and worse in there somewhere. Despite this being so, the truth is that no one gay person can be called upon to answer for all of that. Virtually every gay person I’ve ever met seemed quite serious, domestically minded, and, well, pretty normal.
  So it is for Muslims. Much to the annoyance of journalists, for whom it shreds the simple notions they rely upon to explain us from arm’s length, there is no such thing as a ‘Muslim community’. This hysterically funny satire shows how absurd the idea of a ‘black community’ sounds if it were to be turned on its head.
  If you don’t happen to spend a decent amount of time among Muslims – and that probably accounts for a good number of Muslims themselves, who are equally vulnerable to casting aspersions over themselves after a good hammering by the news – let me tell you that I know Muslims, or know of Muslims, who happily fall into the above categories, and many more innocent, unscary others besides.
  I personally know Muslim midwives and doulas, herbalists, doctors, healers, singers (female too – myself included), musicians, painters, gravestone-carvers, poets, gardeners, Montessori teachers, Steiner teachers, state school teachers, civil servants, journalists, avid PG Wodehouse fans, filmmakers, photographers, nerds, programmers, adrenaline junkies, mountain-climbers…Sometimes they are inspired, driven by a sense of joy so powerful in them that they cannot but do their art, sport, game, craft, or whatever it is, lest they implode with the excitement.
  It seems peculiar to associate any of these ordinary, or extraordinary activities with being a Muslim, but are they any less relevant than a different kind of Muslim’s penchant for throwing stones at tanks, or issuing prohibitions on women revealing their ankles, or shouting ‘Death to America’? How much is each of them contingent upon the time, the context, the education of the person, the influences they are subject to, or the unfathomable movements of the human mind?
  We are, at our least divided, only human beings. Separating a person’s identity from their freedom to behave like a twit is the first step to viewing them as a human being. Otherwise, we owe what we do to our colour, religion, nationality, immigration status, gender, sexuality, or any other label we have invented for the sole purpose of separating others from ourselves and scattering them into a hierarchy whose apex is us. In this ugly scheme where everything is blamed on the umbrella of identity over our heads, none of us can ever break out of the crust built up of our errors and start over.
  So, dear readers, I shall now desist from my Muslim typing, since my Muslim fingers are tired, and my Muslim glasses smudged with unidentified Muslim splodges. My Muslim ideas have run to a standstill. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall have some Muslim Fun with my kids, playing Muslim Football and doing some Muslim Weeding in my Muslim veggie plot. But for now, I shall brush my Muslim teeth, go to Muslim sleep and, I hope, have a few Muslim dreams.

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.

Is She Dreaming? Or Is She Dying?


Farewell, Rambinos.

It’s been a pretty intense time on the El Cura ranch. The heat of August soared to 46 degrees centigrade (that’s 115 Fahrenheit to alla y’all), and while some of us were metaphysically dying in the heat, three of the sheep we are looking after on our house farm-sit literally died from it.

The first one I found in the bunker underneath the alberca/swimming pool. It was dusk, and I had left Caveboy with my parents to take down to the Sufi watering hole for iftar (yes, there were actually people fasting from food and water in this heat). Usually I give the sheep food (hay or ‘forraje’, dried herby grass, plus oats and water) at sundown, and put them into their shed to keep them safe from wild dogs.

But while counting them up, I kept trying to make them add up to eight, and getting confused at only finding seven. Cavegirl was meanwhile yawning and rubbing her eyes, hungry and dinnerless, but nevertheless determined to ‘help’ me. I was in a rush to get to the iftar meal, and ended up running up and down the hectare of land looking for the last lost lamb.

Finding the prostrate woolly figure of the poor beast under the swimming pool sent me into a state of total panic. What the heck…?! My husband was away working at a festival in Portugal, I was on my own, my kids needed to eat…in a mad flap I ran about looking for the right course of action. OK, ring the sheep’s owners…and then what? The only sensible answer that came back was to go have something to eat and wait for morning.

Dead sheep number one buried, I thought my turn as sheep-sitter was already looking pretty bad, when a few nights later, just as I had just got my kids to sleep, I heard a tremendous clattering and baaing going on in the barn.

Still in my stripy PJs, with a pitifully small bicycle lamp in hand and a swell of trepidation in my chest, I crept out to see if someone was trying to steal the animals, or a dog was eating one of them alive.

But the most peculiar thing confronted me. One of the lambs (a full-grown ewe, really) was lying on her side, running like a stabbed bull. Her hooves scraped the wooden sides in a hollow, futile gallop; her teeth were grinding, her head thrown back, eyes swivelling up in white-striped terror, foam frothing at the side of her mouth.

Stunned, but strangely set into pragmatic mode, I went back to the house in search of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, the only thing I could think of that might calm her down as it has done a hundred times on my tantruming kids. It did the trick; the gallops started coming in waves, interspersed with peaceful lulls in which she panted in a a paralysed trance.

I also did the other thing that comes to mind when trying to calm my kids down, which was to sing them the last few chapters of Qur’an in a lullaby voice. Slowly the gallops became less insistent, the pauses for breath a little more protracted.

I started wondering what on earth was wrong with her; I was reminded of an experiment on cats I’d seen a film of in which scientists had removed the part of the brain responsible for paralysing the body during REM sleep. Sleeping cats were filmed acting out physically all of the actions it was obviously dreaming about – running, biting, hunting. The thought crossed my mind: Is she dreaming? Or is she dying?

Despite the puny LED light shed by my torch, what struck me about the musty, dung-perfumed atmosphere of the scene was its primordial, almost Biblical nature. How many times must this have happened in the past, in exactly the same way? The other sheep were absolutely calm now that their shepherdess was there (oh, how naïve sheep are!) and carried on munching their hay blithely. Meanwhile, her legs became stiffer and stiffer – presumably the root of the Spanish expression for ‘kicking the bucket’, ‘estirar la pata’ (to stretch out one’s leg). Perhaps that’s where’ kicking the bucket’ comes from too.

It was abundantly clear now that she was dying. A powerful peace descended on us, and I was overcome by the sensation of what people describe as an angelic presence, in that way that precedes the verbal formulation of it being angelic. In my tearful, sleep-deprived state I felt almost as though I was witnessing the birth of Jesus, in an anachronistic barn that had landed on the wrong continent in a malfunctioning time machine.

I finally left her to her dying stupor, and somehow the peculiarity of the experience ebbed to the sort of stoical acceptance worthy of a weather-beaten peasant farmer, or even, perhaps, a sheep. The lamb had been born in that barn, so it seemed kind of sensical for her to die there too. Life and death are, after all, both threshold experiences, opposites ends of the roll of film but double-exposed, different panoramas both taken with the same lens.

“Only ewe….”

Now slightly inured to the visceral, animal vision of death – this time, according to the vet, it was caused by septicaemia – I was better prepared (though pretty dismayed) to see another lamb wobble dangerously on his feet as he came down to the barn a few evenings later, collapsing as he arrived. I had to grab him under the belly and hoist him into the shed to be able to close the door, but he stood there in a daze, not rooting around int he boxes of hay like they usually do.

The kids were picked up by their dad at 10pm that night; I had to get him to heft all 50 kilos of the poor beast out of the shed onto the cool ground in the light of the car headlamps before they went (much appreciate it, ex-Caveman). I then put on my gingham lycra campesina superhero outfit and sprang into action, making phone calls and racing into town to find rehydration salts.

En route I co-opted a few friends who gave me packs of salts and sugar, and another who obligingly came down with her son at 11 pm to help lift the lamb’s head up while I shoved a syringe of salty sugary liquids down its throat. Over a litre went down in 40 ml doses, sometimes trickling out straight away as he had lost the strength almost to swallow. His teeth chattered against the plastic of the syringe; a heavy fever had already set in. He lolled his head back, panting, dragging his legs back and forth across the grass, making straw angels in the dirt.

At midnight we all withdrew. There was nothing else to do, short of sleeping on the manure-imbued earth beside the barn to keep watch over him, but I’m afraid I couldn’t muster up the saintliness for that. In the morning I went straight over to see if he was OK, but he was exactly where I’d left him, immobile, eyes dusty and frozen, his oily wool coated in icy dew.

Dramas aplenty for one week, you might think. But no, this is the Alpujarras, land of pirates with green moustaches and hippies selling balls of enchanted mud in the market – anything that can go weird, will!

So two days later, due to various bureacratic headaches, and probably a truck-driver who has just now decided to go on holiday, the carcass of Rambino number 3 is still lying under a plastic window blind on the edge of the land, rotting (I am waiting for the campsite next-door to start complaining of the stench). Yes folks, now is not a good time to come and visit Cavemum.

And to top it all off, in the midst of that bubonic hum, together with my new friend Ricardo – a seriously cool old man from the mountains who doesn’t bat an eyelid at this sort of thing – I helped sheared the remaining five sheep this morning…with my kitchen scissors. Actually he used my kitchen scissors, I used my sewing scissors; I had to wash off the greenish lanolin with Ecover afterwards.

Shearing a sheep by hand is quite an amusing experience. Pinning them down is one thing; one of the feisty mamas carried Ricardo halfway across the land while he clung onto its collar for dear life. Then we had to tie three of its legs (leaving one free so it can still breath alright), and get to work snipping away a two-inch deep layer of wool so dense and encrusted with mud and God knows what else that it seems we were chopping up a very unsavoury hippie’s foam mattress. Twice a sheep protested by spontaneously pooing all over the mounting heap of wool.

It took an hour and a half, during which time we bantered about life and drugs and divorce and farming and Kenya and brain tumours and all sorts. Nothing like a tough physical job and a conversation with a weather-beaten man of the earth to set you right. After a vigorous cold shower (my gas bottle is empty), I left for the market feeling on top of the world,remembering why I was drawn to a life on the land in the first place. It’s real life, in all its shiny, delicious, stinky, hilarious glory.

Well, I have blisters from the scissors on my writing hand, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to make for good material. (Writing material, I mean, not fabric. I don’t think I’ll be washing that wool to make felt with anytime soon.)