Zende Creative Retreat, April 2014

Aside

Most of you are more used to reading my rambles about spooning porridge out of my kids’ hair or a flash of insight had whilst shearing sheep…but I would just like to take a moment to mention a beautiful new project I’m currently working on.

For many years I have toyed with the idea of running a retreat in Spain, aimed at (but not exclusive to) Muslims of a spiritual bent who wish to explore their creative depths in an open-minded, relaxing and enjoyable way.

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A few months ago, a dear sister, poet, writer and photographer Ni’mah Nawwab came to a town near where I live for a writing retreat, and came to stay for a few days afterwards. As well as her beautiful company, her enthusiasm for a poetry retreat in Órgiva got me making some moves on this dream…

…and Zende Creative Retreats was born!

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For a small town, there is an absurd amount of untapped artistic talent here. Two master calligraphers, musicians, artists, poets…and in this setting of outstanding natural beauty, where a walk can take you to natural springs, waterfalls, ruined Moorish castles and watchtowers, through gnarled cork oak forests or up green slopes with views of the sea, it is understandable that many people might find this place the scene of great inspiration.

Drawn by the abundance of the natural surroundings, the good food and (very importantly for us Brits) the sunshine, this valley is blessed with seekers from all different walks of life. And as Muslims we find a connection here to a Western Islamic civilisation that brings us a new understanding of who we are. The footprints of Spanish Muslims who lived here barely 500 years ago seem only just beneath the surface of the soil. In the language, the food, the customs, the agricultural traditions – there is still a subtle but tangible presence of Islam here in the south of Spain. Perhaps this is the closest we come to a homeland.

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Yet it is so easy to get lost in nostalgia, in grieving for golden times past. It is clear that this spirit needs to be maintained in something contemporary, something we can relate to, something alive…

Zende, meaning ‘alive’ in Persian, is the gathering that so many of us have been longing for. Zende Creative Retreats are unique in the field of study-abroad holidays, as a primarily creative experience designed to cater to Muslim interests while maintaining a universal and open attitude to all guests, from all backgrounds.

Pommes de Granada

Pommes de Granada

What is it that makes us feel alive? For many of us it can be felt through our spirituality, our search for (and discovery of) meaning in the strange, at times incomprehensible world we live in. When events fall into some sort of order, when we perceive harmony even through our difficulties, a light opens up through the darkness.

But these moments of insight often seem rarer than a pearl in a Big Mac. Surely there’s something we can do, some activity to calm our minds while we dive within to find to pearl we’re looking for?

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In our experience, writing calligraphy and poetry do just that, filling us with peace and reminding us of the beauty inherent in nature, in life, in our own selves. So much confusion and pain can be transmuted into a work of art or literature that not only gives tremendous enjoyment to the artist but also to those receiving it.

To complement the brief but packed programme of calligraphy and poetry, led by facilitators Asghar Alkaei Behjat, Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, Ni’mah Nawwab and myself, we have scheduled yoga at dawn, led by highly experienced instructor Monica Poyato, and walks in the mountains with Ahmad Zaruq Summers of the Granada-based tour company Al-Andalus Experience. This offers us a way to leave the classroom and incorporate our physical selves into the creative experience, as well as providing a great deal of inspiration for our work.

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We are blessed to have the poet ‘Abd al-Hayy Moore coming all the way from Philadelphia to speak about poetry and give us a performance of his work. Ebullient, funny and inspiring, ‘Abd al-Hayy comes from the Beat generation of poets from 1960s California, and has been something of a pioneer in the field of contemporary Western Sufi poetry.

There will also be a chance for retreat guests to perform a few of the pieces they have worked on in the course of the weekend on the last day alongside the phenomenal Ali Keeler and Firdaus Ensemble and some of the workshop facilitators.

To put our landscape into perspective we’ll have a talk on Andalusi history, with particular focus on the great writers and thinkers who have contributed to classical and even modern thought, by Tahira Larmore, who is currently working on a travel guide to Muslim Spain for Turath Publishing. And if you thought that Persian calligraphy was out of place in Spain, this is when you’ll discover just how much Persian influence there was in Andalusi culture!

We’ll also have a Qasida singing workshop given by ‘Abd al-Lateef Whiteman, giving us a rare opportunity to take the ecstatic poems we’ve worked on in calligraphy and learn to sing them.

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The weekend comes to a climax with a visit to the Alhambra palace, one of the great wonders of the world and the site and inspiration of many a poem. Guests who wish to extend their trip can also choose to visit Cordoba before the retreat and/or extend their stay in Granada afterwards.

The programme, bios of the facilitators and details on booking your place on the retreat can all be found by clicking here to visit the website.

From all the Zende Creative team, we wish you a beautiful start to 2014 and hope to see you for some artistic adventure!

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The Barricades of Fear

Aside

  It’s only been a few hours into the news, but for once I am going to jump in and comment. This time it has just gone too far.

  A man claiming to be Muslim attacks three other men in the street in Woolwich with a machete, kills one and seriously wounds the other two, and then comes to someone filming the event (accidentally, I assume) and explains, the machete still in his bloodied hands, that he (and his accomplice) did this as payback for Muslims killed in Muslim countries, and that citizens of the UK will never be safe until those Muslims cease to be killed by UK forces. The victim seems to have been wearing a ‘Help for Heroes’ T-shirt, an organisation that supports veteran soldiers.

  This is something out of a horror film, not out of a holy book.

  I have recently written an extensive article for a friend’s website detailed precisely why violence against civilians is absolutely forbidden in any circumstances by Islam, but it will be three weeks before that article goes online.

  I didn’t want to write before about the Boston attacks as I have still been reeling from those, in utter shock and incomprehension, and in sympathy for the families who had lost their loved ones to mindless murder. I am also afraid for everyone who might be marked out by far-right neo-Nazi Muslim-haters who have already attacked a mosque in Essex in retribution. Egged on by phony political parties like the EDF, pathetic excuses for racism and xenophobia, there will also be another reaction to every action. It seems like the cycle of hatred and revenge just never ends.

  Anyway, very briefly, this is what my article says:

  1) The term ‘civilian’ in Arabic is ‘man la yuqatil’, i.e. ‘he or she who is not/cannot be killed.’ That alone should be enough to indicate that it just shouldn’t ever happen.

  2) Conflict can ONLY be carried out in a legally valid war, between one nation-state that has openly declared war on another. A splinter group, small militia, or any other band of psychos masquerading as ideologues do not have the authority to declare war or anyone, and therefore can never be legitimately involved in combat. This means that by Islamic law, the Woolwich killer is a murderer and should be tried as one.

  3) Even in a legally valid war, a civilian can only resort to lethal violence in the extreme case that a man’s country is invaded suddenly, without having had a chance to prepare for the attack, their army has been totally overwhelmed, the enemy is literally knocking on their door, and he will still be killed and his wife raped if he surrenders. This is, needless to say, and inordinately rare situation.

  5) Anyone living in any country that is not their country of origin, if they are living there with a valid visa, has effectively entered into a pact with that nation and is obliged to live by their laws. As the Qur’an says, “Allah’s earth is vast”; i.e., if you are not happy with the laws in the country you live in, go somewhere else. The Prophetic example of Hijra, or migration, to escape persecution, is so important to Muslims that it defines the birth of our own calendar.

  6) The principles of futuwwa, or spiritual chivalry, are such that even in a valid war, combat must be between people who are both armed, no treachery must take place, or bodies mutilated; fruit trees must not be cut down, or wells poisoned, or crops ruined, or any other act that will prevent the enemy’s civilians from maintaining their livelihood. Pleas for mercy must be listened to. Killing must never be done out of anger. While the Qur’an allows for the continuation of the Mosaic Law of ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’, this phrase is always followed by ‘But forgiveness is better for you.’ Forgiveness is always the preferred course of action, and the overall sense you get from the laws regarding warfare is that the minimum harm should be done in order to effect the maximum amount of peace.

UPDATE: 7) Any war, in order to be legal, may only be defensive, and never offensive.

  Apart from all the legal technicalities, which are amply known to any Muslim teacher worth his salt, there is this sinking, curdling, brooding feeling that attacks like this engender among Muslims (and, in this case, among Blacks too). It’s this: no matter how much we might despise acts like this, reject the hateful ideology that accompanies them, and wish that there might be change, none of us have ever really spent any time with one of these nut-jobs. How can we hope to access the source of this bile, or encourage it to take a more peaceful tack, without venturing into very shaky territory ourselves? We shrink away from people like this – so how can they be helped to change their minds?

  It gives an unsettling, hopeless feeling that we must barricade ourselves inside our faiths, our homes, our cultures. All of which will only lead to more of the same. Each side only seems to be retaliating against the other. No-one knows when the original offence took place, or by whom. The British division of the Middle East? Did it go back even further than that? Are these resentments that have rumbling way back into the era of the slave trade, African colonialism, the Raj? Are we still hunting the past for reasons to blame someone other than ourselves for our current problems?

  It also makes it even more difficult to have the opinion that European and American forces should indeed pull out of Afghanistan, for instance, lest we find ourselves on the same ‘side’ as the thugs.

  My heart goes out to Woolwich right now. And if anyone has any suggestions on how to cut this cycle of revenge short, the world is listening…

STOP PRESS: Muslim Writer Says “Boobs Are Great!”

Aside

If there is a single person on the cyber-planet not yet bored to the back teeth with the Femen and Anti-Femen protests, I have a few small wee things to say.

1) There are serious problems facing women in many Muslim countries.

2) There are serious problems facing women in many countries, full stop.

3) There is no legal basis for stoning adulterers in Islam, for banning women from driving, for accusing pregnant single women of fornication (see why here), for a man beating his wife (you read right – read Laleh Bakhtiar’s excellent explanation why), and for a whole host of evils inflicted on women in the name of patriarchy in Islam’s clothing.

4) There is no death penalty by lapidation in Tunisia, and there were no executions at all in the last two years. Tunisia is a very Western-leaning nation among the Arab nations; the President once prepared on state television eating during Ramadan, and encouraging people not to fast. The threats against Amina (the Tunisian Femen protester who published a topless photo of herself online) are empty.

5) Boobies are wonderfully handy things. They make milk for babies. Breastfeeding is seen as a perfectly normal, necessary, nurturing act in Muslim countries, and is accepted everywhere. Men just look away.

6) Breastfeeding in most Western countries is considered as one of those things hippie women with hairy armpits do in public places, and may result in you being asked to leave a restaurant. (This may not purely be for prejudicial reasons. I know someone whose baby popped off the nipple one time and she accidentally squirted a waiter in the eye.)

7) Seeing punky white girls with the words ‘F*** YOUR MORALS’ and ‘RELIGION KILLS’ scrawled across their tits does not exactly make most Muslim women warm to their cause, even if it is, in theory, in their favour. (Incidentally, the biggest mass murderers of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, were atheists. Communism trampled on the human rights of millions of people in the Soviet Bloc, China and elsewhere, and it was aggressively anti-religion. There are, shocking as it sounds, many politically-motivated killings that occur all over the world for such charming causes as landgrabs, resource appropriation, torturing  purported terrorists and so on. The ‘Enlightened’ West doesn’t exactly have the cleanest bill itself.)

8) In the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s). many women went around bare-breasted. This did not – amazingly! – result in mass orgies in the streets in which lust-fuelled Arab men tore their thowbs off and ravished them. The men just had to learn to lower their gaze. If Muslim men applied this deeply-cherished Islamic principle properly, they wouldn’t even SEE a woman’s naked breasts, thus obviating any idea of her being immoral, whoreish, publicity seeking…or whatever.

Proof positive that hijab maketh not the nice Muslim girl

Proof positive that hijab maketh not the nice Muslim girl

9) It is true that there are harsh (hudud) punishments in Islamic law. However, if you read the small print, which is actually very large print but only appears to be small to myopic Saudi patriarchs and hysterical journalists, the chances of being able to apply these hudud punishments are effectively impossible. In order for a man to catch his wife cheating, for example, he would not only have to catch her in bed with another man. He would have to witness the act of copulation with his bare eyes, and he would need to have three male witnesses to the exact same act, all of whom must have such spotless records of morality and character themselves that if they have ever been seen to hit a donkey, their testimony in court must be thrown out. Even a women who becomes pregnant after not seeing her husband for two years is protected by the (clearly unscientific) concept of the ‘Sleeping Foetus’. The Qur’an furthermore states that “…No-one shall bear any prejudice against a woman because of her child” (2:233). In fact, to make an unsuccessful accusation of adultery carries a penalty only slightly less than that for adultery itself (eighty lashes). (Yes I know, lashes, bad. But still an improvement on stoning. I’m guessing the hope was that 1400 years later things would have continued to improve…boy did they guess wrong!) Technically, if the restrictions on hudud laws were put into practice, any kind of corporal or capital punishment in a Muslim country would have to be effected after a confession – and even then it would be rare. The Prophet was known to have asked the family and friends of a man confessing to adultery if he was mad, or drunk, and then he repeatedly asked him if he was sure he didn’t just touch her. (The tradition of stoning for adultery was banned by Shariah law in the lifetime of Muhammad, to his very great relief.)

10) The Prophetic example is one that cannot be condensed to a soundbite. While in his time there were certainly very ancient methods of dealing with social disorder which in our times nobody would stand for, the overall example he gave was one of compassion, forgiveness, humility, kindness, generosity, good humour, embodying beauty, and modesty (in its widest sense; he famously said “Modesty is a garment”, which to me says that the attitude itself is a protection, regardless of what is worn). If he were around today, viewing the other options we have on hand to deal with crime and disorder, I have absolutely no doubt that he would ban hudud punishments. Some Muslim countries are coming to this realisation, very slowly. We are obligated to campaign for its progress. These are vitally important causes, and yet poor research and knee-jerk reactions mean we’re getting mired in debates that only distract us from the real issues. Channel that anger right andwe might see some real victories.

So, if you have not already fallen asleep at the mere mention of the F word, those are my two bits. With the sexualisation of commerce and the commercialisation of sex in the Western world, frankly, I am bored to the point of numbness by the sight of a strange woman’s breasts. It seems like more of the same, be it Beyoncé’s bouncing bazongas or Femen’s anarchistic antics. Boobs are, to me, one of the greatest wonders of the world, but it’s not because of how other people see them, particularly not people all set to Instagram them. It might come as a shock to us, Internet-inured as we are, but really, the most beautiful things in life are not out there on the street, or on your iPhone, easily available and free to download. They are more subtle, and hidden, and precious than anything your media-invaded imagination can come up with.

There is a whole other dimension to this, which is how it actually feels to wear a hijab, which Femen don’t seem to be very interested in. But that will have to be a post for another day.

The Danger of School Bell*

Aside

School is big in our minds at the moment, and it seems that it is not far from the news either. This week, two news stories have thrown up a curious question for me.

First, there’s been 14 year old Malala Yousefzai’s shooting. An outspoken blogger for the BBC at a tender age, and the first person to be awarded Pakistan’s National Peace Prize, Malala was on a bus on her way to school in Swat Valley – a heavily Taliban-controlled region of Pakistan – when Taliban gunmen stopped the bus and shot her in the neck and head.

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The people of Pakistan immediately came out in massive demonstrations of support for Malala and condemnation of the Taliban. Malala is currently in Birmingham, England, where is seems she is slowly recovering. It is interesting to note that Malala’s school is actually run by her father, and is one of only a few schools for girls that dare to operate under constant threats from the Taliban.

Then, last night, I received a plea from Causes.com to ask the Canadian government to put 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s cyber-bullies to trial after the teenager committed suicide. If you watch the story she poignantly tells through pieces of paper on YouTube, you are thrown (back) into the cut-throat world of high school popularity politics. Not only was she hounded and humilated on Facebook with a leaked photo of her breasts, making her change schools several times, she was then beaten up by a gang of teenagers for a regrettable fling she had had and left in a ditch.

It gets nastier: utterly depressed, too anxious to leave the house and constantly cutting, she drank bleach in an attempt to kill herself. She was taken to hospital where they pumped her stomach. When she returned home, her Facebook profile was full of posts from her tormentors: “She’s so stupid, she should’ve drunk a different kind of bleach”; “I hope she reads this and kills herself.” The really sad part of this story is that she actually did.

OK. So on the one hand, there are girls in Pakistan defying murderous terrorists to go to school. On the other, there are girls whose very attendance at school means exposure to pretty much the same kind of cruelty. The Taliban had guns, while the Canadian kids only had words, but the horrible truth is that the words had more the desired effect.

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Great photo story from the Guardian about schools around the world:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/gallery/2012/sep/14/schools-around-the-world-children#/?picture=395983374&index=0

What is going on here? The contrast is making me wondering if schools are universally good for children. Both cases are extreme, but Malala is not the only girl with restricted access to schooling, and Amanda is certainly not the only developed world teen who has been scarred by her schoolground experiences.

My husband commented: “People always want what they can’t have. It used to be that parents forbade their children from going to school, because they needed their kids to help with the harvest.” (Spain’s 3-month summer holiday dates back to this time.) “Then kids are desperate to go to school, they’ll escape and go in by themselves despite the punishment. The first act of democratisation has always been sending children to school, even though parents don’t like it.”

It’s not for nothing that Europe is now practically devoid of small-scale farmers, which forces food production into vast greenhouses, such as the ones that coat the Almeria area in a frighteningly uniform sea of plastic. Not only are they an ecological nightmare (chemical fertilisers, pesticides, masses of plastic dumped afterwards), they also hire immigrant workers for a pittance, who cannot get papers and are therefore seriously marginalised in society.

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But ecology’s loss is economy’s gain – in theory. Since the fall of Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1979, Spain has experienced an accelerated opening to the world wide markets. A huge amount of EU money has gone into building motorways across Spain to transport the food grown in the above-mentioned greenhouses to the North, where food production is lamentable low.

With democratisation came obligatory schooling from age 6, and socialist policies under Zapatero meant that millions of Spanish youths could attend universities on scholarships. Spain now has an abundance of photographers, media consultants, dance teachers, artists…and 25 % unemployment in places like Granada.

There’s no way anyone could say that education isn’t a good thing overall. Literacy alone opens up the world to small mountain communities like the one I live in; I read on a woman’s shopping bag yesterday the phrase “Leer is vivir dos vecez” – Reading means living twice. Illiteracy is still a problem here. My old neighbours, a goatherd and farmer woman in their seventies, used to walk an hour to town in the evenings to attend literacy classes. Our local cobbler still has to get me to read the labels of products in his shop.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if Caveboy’s daily resistance to school isn’t for a reason. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy spending five hours a day in a concrete, strip-lit box with thirteen yelling, tantruming, wooden brick throwing children, having to colour in inane pictures and rip out shapes from a workbook. How is that beneficial to a child’s development? We do far more interesting, educational activities at home.

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What I worry is that the educational standard of the western world is one that is focused on results, marks, passing exams, achieving certificates to stick on walls, rising up tables, improving chances of material success. This is government-think, not humanity-think. The individualism inherent to this system breeds loneliness, greed, anxiety, fear of failure, and the neglect of those who fall through the net.

Daniel Goleman in 1995 wrote a thesis about emotional education in preschool years, quoted in this web essay by Dana Kirsch:

The preschool years are crucial ones for laying foundation skills, and there is some evidence that Head Start can have beneficial long-term emotional and social effects on the lives of its graduates even into their early adult years – fewer drug problems and arrests, better marriages, greater earning power. The Kindergarten year marks a peak ripening of the `social emotions’ – feelings such as insecurity and humility, jealousy and envy, pride and confidence. Children in the youngest grades get lessons in self-awareness, relationships, and decision-making. Some of the most effective programs in emotional literacy were developed as a response to a specific problem, notably violence. As a society we have not bothered to make sure every child is taught the essentials of handling anger or resolving conflicts positively – nor have we bothered to teach empathy, impulse control, or any of the other fundamentals of emotional competence. By leaving the emotional lessons children learn to chance, we risk largely wasting the window of opportunity presented by the slow maturation of the brain to help children cultivate a healthy emotional repertoire [Goleman, 1995].

 


What is the purpose of education? Is it to increase productivity – not least for the parents, who need a place to leave their children while they do jobs that their kids cannot participate in? Or is it to produce healthy, well-rounded, sane individuals who have a good shot at being happy throughout their lives?

Like anything, I suppose, the answer is a combination of the two. Subsistence farming, as I blogged about here previously, is not economically viable any more. While illiteracy might spare a teenager from hateful comments left on their Facebook page (indeed, it would save them from a lot of aimless, time-wasting surfing on the world’s favourite brain leech), it’s abundantly clear that people can’t get on any more without having a certain level of education.

Still, it makes me wonder: are schools in fact producing brainy but ultimately inhumane creatures who can only contribute to society in economic terms?

I’d be fascinated to hear about your experiences.

* The title is an allusion to a Spike Milligan joke about the ‘Danger of Work Bell’ – look him up if you need a good laugh after all this!

Is She Dreaming? Or Is She Dying?

Aside

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.)