(I don’t want to start writing on the topic of Charlie Hebdo right now…it’s being written about so much that there’s nothing more I can add. Plus I am 7+ months pregnant and sort of incoherent. But I’ll point you in the direction of a few interesting links:
And the hilarious Aziz Ansari ripping into Murdoch on Twitter with some spot-on satire of his own
…Oh alright, I can’t help it…here’s a poem.)
Freedom from Expression
Break out into a dance if that’s your urge
or rock weeping in a corner of the shower
let out what needs to be let out
the caged ocelot pacing in circles
longing for the zookeeper
to leave the door open a moment too long
– that is freedom of expression.
It’s singing when the song billows out
in your lungs before you have a chance
to shut yourself up.
It’s grabbing a pen – anyone’s –
and scribbling a torrent of thoughts
that blur everything else
until your mind runs clear again.
There is no violence to it,
no evil intents; even the ocelot
only wants to race to the nearest forest
to pad his giant paws through rustling leaves
and catch a bird the way his nature longs to.
There is no hatred in it.
But when the doors of art open
and out pours a wave of bile
unwitting passersby are swept up in it
lose their handbags and footings
and if it seeps into the streets,
trickles through windows and soaks into sofas
it starts to appear like normality.
That is not freedom of expression;
it is abuse of the onlooker’s innocence.
Give me freedom from that expression.
I’ll take my chances
with the ocelot.
Each woman is a jumble sale
a riotous clash of
that hold nostalgic value
holey socks and too-small
suede jackets that would look good
if only…if her body were…
(still, the thought of looking fly in it
was worth every penny.)
And you, male browser,
scanning through her
chipped gravy boats
retro plastic sunglasses
that still make her grin to wear them
– but really, how much cargo
can this camel lug around? –
you, oh male peruser,
have the choice whether to scorn
her history of bad taste and saunter
off in search of more impressive tat
to riffle patiently through her EPs
and cheesy paperbacks
(remembering that this is just the junk
she’s willing to show the public)
and chance upon that rare 1880s
engraved silver compass
she was always looking for
someone to give to
and the glow in your eyes
turns all the trinkets into treasure
at the feet of a queen.
Don’t you see, oh male desirer?
It is your admiration
that draws out her beauty.
She see your delight
and opens the box
hidden under the foldout table
full of more wondrous things
the ones she didn’t want to muddle up
with the broken fake Rolexes.
Don’t you see, oh male
seeker of the sublime?
She embodies it
when she feels your awed gaze
lighting her up in a corona.
Just as He said,
“I am in the opinion of My servant”,
want only this Beauty
and she will dazzle you with it.
and she will give you
In the past 5 years of blogging, directing my thoughts world-wards through this silent megaphone on a screen, I’ve almost always been blissfully ignored by the self-appointed wardens of Islamic values that skulk the internet. Either this means I’m not being inflammatory enough, or (and this is a vain hope of mine) they are put off by the prospect of an online verbal evisceration. I’m quite happy not to be on their radar, though; anything for a quiet life.
Unfortunately, however, every time it seems that Muslims might be doing something interesting on the world stage, the condemnations start pouring in.
In a behind-the-scenes video she shot for the new film American Sharia, Yaz the Spaz (I’m guessing she doesn’t know what this means in the UK, unless she’s trying to wrong-foot her detractors by insulting herself first) receives a few brave hurrahs in the comments section, before a whole barrage of strangers inform her in various tones of indignation that she was “too close to the men”, that the film did not represent true Islam, and – that classic put-down written by people on their iPads while on the Tube on their way to work in a merchant bank – “this isn’t what the Sahabah would have been doing”.
Whilst silently suppressing the screams of frustration, it is important that we avoid responding with the same kind of blinkered reactions, and instead endeavour to understand that human psychology is, much like our DNA, 90% identical to that of a carrot. The other 10% depends on whether anyone ever allowed you to play with dangerous implements as a child.
This is the memo that it seems the trolls missed: Moralising, judging, attacking, or condemning to the most scorching regions of hell DOES NOT ACHIEVE THE DESIRED EFFECT of changing a person’s ways any more than telling elephants to stop being large and wrinkly turns them into mice.
People are too stubborn for that. We have good reason to be. Can you imagine if you changed your entire direction in life, your approach to God, humanity and the universe, every time someone told you the way you were meant to think? We’d be bouncing back and forth across the squash court of spirituality all our lives.
Much as it’s annoying to be a parent to intractable children when you’re trying to get them to sit in their car seat and put their belt on for the fifth time in a day, if you put yourself in their position, you’d kick up a fuss yourself. They’re only practising for being a teenager and having to stick up for themselves; you’ll appreciate their wilfulness when they refuse to obey whatever the alpha (fe)male of their class tells them to do.
There is the even more annoying possibility that the person doing the reprimanding might be absolutely right. The point, however, is that shoving their rightness down another person’s throat won’t make them swallow it. (Much more problematic is when it isn’t certain that they are right, only that their conviction makes them feel horribly offended when you don’t collapse at their feet with sobs of gratitude for their kind advice.)
This might just be a case of culture shock: being brought up in Britain among people who shudder at the idea of being thought bossy or rude, when I travelled to places such as Morocco, Kenya and Saudi Arabia it became clear that a lot of people had an opinion on how I should dress, eat, talk, pray, chew gum, wear flip-flops etc., and that they took it as a moral duty, like a doctor travelling to Sierra Leone to fight ebola, to stamp out my silly foreign tendencies.
I smiled and nodded so much I almost wore my face and neck muscles right through. Then I went back to England and revelled in being able to wear whatever I liked much more than before.
How might those well-meaning bossypants have transmitted their pearls of wisdom in a way that would have stuck? Taking time to become friends, being an example of what they believe is right, educating through humour, thoughtfully exploring why certain behaviours are better (and we need to ask ourselves what ‘better’ means – more in line with the status quo, or more conducive to happiness?)…all these might have been helpful, and shown a good deal more adab (the Islamic concept of good manners).
But in extreme cases of obstinacy, like my own, I have come to the conclusion that the only remedy is unconditional acceptance. Compassion melts away defenses like ice before fire. You don’t need an itemised list of your sins read out to you: all you need is to feel accepted despite them. The Muslims I met who taught me more about Islam than anyone else were the ones who did no preaching whatsoever, but instead welcomed me with open arms, showed trust and generosity and care without even knowing how to speak my language, and forgave whatever breaches of their cultural codes I made.
That is merely a reflection of my experience of Allah: an all-encompassing embrace of care and kindness, even though I’ll never be up to scratch. And that is why, despite the trolls and the fundamentalists, despite Da’esh and lone wolf attacks, this feeling of being heard and held casts everything else into the shadows. The only way I can bear those shadows is by remembering the warmth of the light.
If the Ummah is one body
then we are all brittle bones
skins grown armoured
out of fear of speared looks.
Meanwhile collapsing organs
leave lacunae in their wake
hollows that cringe and cramp
and invite hauntings.
Our veins have dried to desert rivers
joints arthritically creak
only so far, shaking at the idea
of stretching any more.
Between the mummified exterior
and the limping core
there is an emptiness
that reaches for union
sighs for solidity
whistles like hilltop pines
for sense or silence.
My voice is called to sing into this void
this fantastic concert hall denied of concerts
stifled by a plaster casing
created to protect
but the wounds need air;
our bandages are soaked through now –
to keep them on we risk
a gangrene on our souls.
Listen quietly as you unwind them:
there is music in the rattling of our bones
in the weeping of our tissues
in the way we scrape our heels
along the ground.
It joins the leaves’ percussion in the wind
the insects’ string section out on the lawn
the whispering of oranges as they grow juice
the sparrows chittering coded melodies and the
deep heaving of planets
drawing harmonies out of space –
that is a song to get us up and dancing again.
Quivering brings vibrato
to our parched throats – trembling
makes the timbre believable
and words that rise
unwritten in that loss
score our hymn.
In memory of the lives lost in Peshawar and with heartfelt prayers for a peaceful holiday season for all.
Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.
The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.
The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.
The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
and while my hands are
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
the ore of that ground called home.
The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.
I’m a dangerous lady right now.
After 32 years of being very British and smiling and nodding when irritating people want to pry into my state of mind and offer unwanted advice, I have reached cracking point. This is a formal warning: anyone who sees me around and exclaims “Oh my gosh! Your belly’s grown!! It’s enormous!!! Are you sure it’s not twins??!!!” will get short shrift, or possibly a black eye. My better nature would like to apologise in advance, but something is happening as I hit the 6 month gestation mark and my animal instincts are taking over. (What did they think, that my belly was going to start shrinking?)
Even worse is the daily question:
“Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?”
“Ah, isn’t that nice, you’ve chosen not to find out, it’ll be a surprise…but what does your intuition tell you?”
“That I’m carrying the non-gendered child of Godzilla who will be my bodyguard wherever I go, biting off the limbs of anyone who PRIES INTO WHAT MY INTUITION TELLS ME.”
I must be surrounded by lots of genuinely empathetic people who want to offer advice on how to deal with life, who may well have amazingly useful things to add, but I’m starting to feel that when people offer advice it is really for their own benefit, not for the benefit of the one they’re giving it to. Rushing up to someone with an expression of intense concern and telling them “You look like you’re in terrible distress! You need my help!” is more likely to produce the effect of being pushed off the nearest cliff (or ought to). If you really want to help me, why don’t you come to my house and do some dishes?
The trouble is that many of us are so well trained in problem-solving, in everything from maths to mindfulness, that we probably do have a lot of helpful advice to give, if only we could find someone to give it to. The number of times that I’ve thought, “They really should try…”, I could become an agony aunt. In fact, if I charged for my services it might actually be of some use; of all the advice I’ve been given, only about 1% has stuck – the 1% I actually asked for.
But problem-solving only works on non-human problems. Humans are far too troublesome to be able to come along and fix as though we were a crack in the road. Cracks in the road don’t have egos that bristle at the idea of being patronised or belittled. Giving advice is as good as belittling: you’re effectively telling a person that 1) they have a problem (which they might not have been aware of before; “I have a problem? Oh no!”) and 2) that they can’t possibly sort it out on their own. THEY NEED YOUR HELP.
People such as these need to read that all-time classic of psychology literature, Little Miss Helpful by Roger Hargreaves. Really. It has cured me of the existential disease of wanting to help people who don’t want be helped. I can now quite calmly watch people walk into ditches without feeling the urge to set them straight.
Perhaps I am also having a hint of apprehension at the fact that when another baby appears in the house, all of a sudden I will have thousands of well-meaning relatives bombarding me with tips on getting them to sleep well, how to deal with wind, what laundry detergent to use, which early educational tools will teach them six languages and calculus before they’re at kindergarten, and how to get back into pre-baby shape. The temptation is almost irresistible, especially when the target is a first-time mum, and I’ve fallen into its gaping jaws many a time myself.
But one of the reasons I started this blog was because I realised how little advice I had to offer anyone, how pointless it is to try to preach, how the only way I would ever connect with anyone is to be frank about my own failings. With the added benefit of making me laugh at them. It’s what you might call a ‘desahogo’ in Spanish: a place to ‘undrown’ myself.
The only time that problem-solving works on people is when you are left to your own devices and you come up with a solution yourself. Those are almost always the best solutions, custom-designed to your own situation, and they make you feel capable of dealing with the next problem that comes up. That’s the essence of creativity. Unless you need professional help, in which case, don’t ask advice from me.
Eventually this hormonal phase shall too pass and I’ll go back to offering a strained, patient smile whenever people tell me “Why are you so pale/thin/tall/female/English? You need X, then a course of Y, and finally Z at dawn every day for a week. I used to be like you, and now look at me!” But for now I am in blunt mode, and since no-one is sparing my ego, I shall spare none myself.
Remember, I’m carrying the child of Godzilla and I KNOW YOUR IP ADDRESS.
Grief is a cascade of shattering glass
waves glide beamingly overhead
opening light through their million edges
in ways that make sunshine new
(I am not used to this parasol)
and the premonition of pain is blurred by the beauty
we’re walking chest-deep in fracture
the heat rushes up to heal hairline cuts
that fray hearts to a halo
but legs that appear to be shredded keep walking
mind takes note of extraneous things
– the cats have ran out of biscuits;
today breakfast was leftover rice –
yet mid-morning the thought of her friends and twin sister
washing her, as though asleep in their arms,
perfuming the long hair that once hung in a braid
from a white Astrakhan hat, dressing her
still-warm limbs lovingly,
and the silence of her song forever stilled
returns and aches into my corners
knocks the voice out of me.
Now again the brilliance rises:
the way she could call up an ocean of harmony
from a fidgeting room
turn strangers into heart-mates
and awe at her fearless direction,
blunt honesty when things sounded wrong,
sets a lamp beneath this ceiling of glass
and makes the inside more dazzling than all of the
stars crowding down at us
peering in through the clear roof of the moment
and wishing that they too could know grief.
In memory of a beloved friend, choir mistress and seeker Charlie Radha Spearing, who will be buried today. To donate to a ‘Joy Fund’ so that her 2 year old daughter and 12 year old son can visit their families and go on adventurous as their mother would have liked to have done with them, please visit this link: http://www.gofundme.com/ha6ilc
Workout videos always amuse me. This afternoon I was trawling through YouTube to find a good pregnancy yoga video, my 4 1/2 daughter beside me. First we found one of your classic vids, an unusually slick production for the UK, complete with a wood fire in the background, random Zen-like objects on the shelves and French windows onto a tranquil patio (though we could still see the cameraman in the glass of the woodburner).
Warmed up by now, I keep searching and find an American prenatal pilates workout, which exceeded all my expectations (not to mention my fitness levels). The glowingly tanned instructor sashayed onto the screen like a starlet, the tracking shots zoomed in dizzyingly from all over (even the ceiling), and she kept talking about buns. Where I’m from buns are something you eat. Can’t you just call them buttocks and get it over with?
The music was energetic enough to send me into early labour, in fact I had to turn it off after a couple of minutes thinking I was having a kind of cultural heart attack (and I’m half American).
Still looking for decent exercise vids, we then found another British yoga clip that brought things back down to a manageable level of reality. The instructor wore an old tracksuit, the handheld camera jiggled about, there was a terrible glaring light in the background, and after every line the instructor pursed her lips in an apologetic sort of grimace. Ah, that’s more like it! A healthy dose of British realism.
While chuckling to myself over this transatlantic comparison during my familiar pregnancy-induced insomnia, I realised that this isn’t a million miles away from where Muslims are – in the global, cultural digisphere – from the kind of slick PR values currently steering the zeitgeist. For years we’ve heard people saying things like, ‘When are Muslims going to start making decent magazines, TV stations, films? Where are the Spielbergs of the Muslim world? Why can’t we get it together and make things just as well as what’s made in the West?’ And of course there’s the political gripe, which comes just as often (with a self-gratified sneer) from the Islamophobia corner, ‘Where are the Martin Luther Kings, the Gandhis, the Mandelas of the Islamic world? Where are those voices that make the whole world stop and listen?’
The answer to the former question is one that is changing rapidly right now. Navid Akhtar, a regular documentary maker for the BBC, is currently looking for ‘founder members’ to subscribe to (i.e crowdfund) a wonderful digital TV platform called Alchemiya, clearly a cut above the rest in terms of production values, and with the ethos of presenting the most beautiful and fascinating content from the Muslim World today – as often as not emerging from among Western Muslims. People like Canadian-born film-maker Adam Shamash, whose recent video for Californian hip-hop artist and poet Baraka Blue’s song Love and Light was filmed in Fez and London, are upping the stakes with great passion and verve. (If you’re careful you might see me in that clip too…)
In the vanguard of any movement you’ll always find artists. Speaking plain truth and down-to-earth wisdom is the quiet but constant Peter Sanders, whose photography career started with the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix (he took the last shots of Jimi onstage before his death) and now meanders over the Islamic world capturing faces of saints and schoolkids, worlds inaccessible to the average blogger or newsreader.
Another Muslim Peter is that of the ever-dynamic Gould variety, whose Sydney-based design company pulls a lot of punches and whose Facebook page has over 100,000 followers. His Creative Ummah project, which is likewise looking for support at the moment on LaunchGood (another interesting Muslim enterprise), would create an online learning platform for everything from art to zoology (well, maybe the zoology is going a bit far), highlighting all the talent currently out there in the Muslim World.
Islam is back in the saddle with a new album, this time collaborating with an old friend from the Sufi 70s, Richard Thompson, and co-produced by Rick Rubin. One of few Muslim artists who have known serious limelight, Yusuf masterfully injects listenable, well-turned-out tunes with arresting philosophical thoughts.
You get the idea. I’d love to highlight all the Muslims currently putting immense efforts into raising the standards across the board, bringing beauty back into art and design (check out Lateefa Spiker, Iona Fournier-Tombs, Soraya Syed, and my very own dad for inspiring, bar-raising work) but there isn’t the space here and they might unfriend me for writing something embarrassing about them by accident. The point is that as the generations of Western Muslims move into second and even third, the production quality we expect is filtering down into the work we produce. No more cheap books printed in Lahore with text slipping off the page and spines that come undone after one reading.
My problem is that there’s something I quite like about the rubbishy productions we’re growing out of. Sure, the book-lover in me balks at poorly designed covers and pages so thin you can read the whole book just by holding it up to the light, but there’s something kind of honest about it nonetheless.
There is a tipping point at which content begins to be eclipsed by form. For many Muslims, this is exactly what we’re reacting against in the western sphere, an artistic and political stage in which looks mean everything, in which a US president can speak movingly about freedom and justice and the fight against terror while STILL not closing Guantanamo Bay, killing untold numbers of Pakistani and Syrian civilians using drones, or continuing to use cluster bombs even though they are known to kill children who think they’re toys.
We expect politics to be devious, but there has to be honesty in art or all is lost. I would much rather watch an Iranian film with poor film quality on YouTube for its awesome cinematography, brilliant script and effortlessly realistic acting than a Hollywood blockbuster in HD replete with clever jokes, jaw-dropping CGI effects and score sung by some chart-topping megababe. I suppose it’s the frustrated traveller in me that is riveted by ruins, prefers crummy worker’s restaurants with good eats over five-star places, and seeks out people selling food from trays on their head in the street to find out about the meaning of life.
The answer to the second question is not so dissimilar, either. Full marks if you’ve heard of Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her tireless campaigns for women’s rights. Or Samira Saleh al-Nuaimi, an Iraqi lawyer and political activist who criticised ISIS aka Da’esh, on a Facebook page and was tortured and executed for it. (It did appear in a few newspapers, with some photo credits even spelling her name wrong). Meanwhile there are people like the affable Sudanese London-based Sheikh Babikir, who never ceases to preach peace and love and hugging trees, as well as thousands of other ‘good’ teachers with the same message; surely Abdallah Bin Bayyah’s plea for a ‘war on war for a peace upon peace’ is a quote worthy of Gandhi. But love and compassion doesn’t hit the news quite like a beheading.
The voices do exist: they just don’t have full make-up, excellent English and a retinue that keeps the red carpet rolling. ‘Neither did Gandhi or Martin Luther King’, you say. That’s true; but things have changed immeasurably since then. To make your voice heard now in the galaxy of user-generated content online, you have to drown everyone else out. You need a YouTube channel, a manager, a lawyer, a dozen advisers to keep your career on track, a personal trainer, some sort of bizarre diet involving immortality mushrooms, lots of famous friends who will invite you to their shows so you can be photographed there, and the expectation that you are worth it, dammit.
So while I applaud those people who are creating higher quality art and design, more functional websites, better translations, more beautiful gifts, and films to knock your socks off, I’d like to spare some time for the jumble sale rejects, the people with good hearts and great words whose suits aren’t snappy and whose colour schemes suck. May we never get so cool that we forget the dust and decay of the real world. In the great, metaphorical landscape of the internet, I’d rather be in downtown Zanzibar in a pair of flipflops eating a mango than shopping for Prada in a Dubai mall any day.
Poison thoughts seed poison stalks
that fork and double their toxic talk
breed bushes glistening with baubles red
and deadly, the kind of fruit
children reach out for first
to test on unknowing’s litmus strip
and crush for fairy puddings on rocks
while the juice sinks into fingers,
stains best frocks.
Thus superiority claims early addicts,
taught by poison words laid down like crumbs
thought to lead out of dark woods.
Those adult charms are so ripe, so
appealing in the velvet green of their
intelligence, but even one drop
of that sap will turn a person sour
will turn their heads to power
give them electric turns of phrase
make them quick to humiliate
to make it seem their state
is ever-calm, sedate, more rational
than all these blurting twerps
whose hearts are always turning
who cannot help but shake during a
simple conversation on
that morning’s train strikes
when the thought of eternal cessation
strikes them dumb. The pretty jewels
fed to them while young
clot their bellies with glinting cold
broken down now to subatomic
size and crossed the semipermeable
membranes round their hearts, which is why
they make small smiles
and cry “Why, that appears to be our train!
On time!” and stride away to more
where people do not turn pale
tremble their berryless leaves
when the canopy is parted by rays of
an overpowering light
at awkward times.
No: standards must be maintained.
So long as the clever quotes, quick wits
and anecdotes remain acceptable
the results determinable
the course unswervable
the mind unperturbable
it will seem to the lovers of this fruit
that nothing can prove them wrong
that they are at the pinnacle of rightness
and everyone else must therefore be
But those berries are not food:
they are baubles made of glass
that will cut your tongue
if you try to make them feed you.