Coping with the Past

 

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The Plaque of T. S. Eliot on one of the SOAS buildings, formerly the office of Faber & Faber

You can order your life by the chronologically startling events that punctuate it.

These aren’t always happy, exciting events, but dark and terrible moments too.

How many soliloquies of an acquaintance have you heard beginning with ‘When my mother died…’ or ‘the year I got divorced…’.

The most significantly painful memories cleverly enmesh themselves into our moments of greatest change and transformation, like the period of time it will take to shed skin.

This is a deeply painful process, nonetheless, but vital in colliding our fantasy of our lives with the reality of what it has become.

As a student at SOAS, I attended lectures in the building displaying the above plaque, and had little notion that, alongside writing one of the most influential poems ‘The Waste Land’ and inspiring the poetic revolution in Iraq through انشودة المطر ‘Rain Song’ by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (‘Eating the earth around her, drinking the rain’), T. S. Eliot also wrote a poem entitled ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’. He enjoyed detailed observations of the pathetic, the superficial and the humiliating.  The point to be made is that pressed up against the window pane where you will daydream your best work, is the categorical failure, trauma or anguish required to fuel your journey towards it.

Soon after my baby died, I spent a long, lonely afternoon in the Waterstones in Piccadilly. This is the largest bookshop in Northern Europe, and a cave glittering with gems of ideas where you will be left alone to browse, read, sleep and ponder. I read ‘Very Good Lives’ by J. K. Rowling. She talks about failure having the power to reveal ourselves, in a brutally honest fashion, stripping away the misdirected thoughts and aspirations we had.

I am now in what John Agard calls ‘a pregnant moment’ of my own history, both metaphorically and physically.

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Pregnancy after loss is both thrilling and uncertain. I am aware of the weighty impact and responsibility now of every decision I make for my health, my mental wellbeing and my spiritual growth. I have emotionally come through a cycle, a flow chart of growth:

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I accept my limitations. I cannot see the future, and I know I have human anxieties and emotions that make me imperfect. Imperfection, as many learned men and women try to reiterate, is the ingredient to a wise life, because in overcoming our powerful desire for superficial order and symmetry (and never taste disapointment) we are on the road to a wiser, more contented life.

We enjoy escapism, fantasy, the arc of the narrative and the subsequent happy ending. But this is not what we experience in life. As T. S. Eliot writes:

‘…said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.’

So never stop daydreaming, keep writing nonsense stories, painting and indulging your appetite for sitcoms. Be ever aware, though, that these are part of your consolation therapy for being a troubled human, and that you will have to take the path towards deep growth and resilience if you want to make difficult experiences empowering.

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How to make a fresh start

We, my husband and I, moved into a cottage. The cottage is on a road where no one knows us, and in a town where neither of us work. Today I took the train from the train station, and arrived at the office, bypassing new, green landscapes.

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I have moved house many times. It is something apparent in the generations that were before me. I lived in six homes before I was 17 years old, a testament to the social housing problem in Britain which meant every home I had was temporary, and we never knew when we would have to move on to another Local Authority.

Marrying David took me to Surrey, then to Alexandria in Egypt, then Damascus in Syria, back to London and then to Surrey again. Now we are in Hampshire. Why is it different to any other move? Because this one doesn’t start with ‘It’s close to my parents/university/office and will do for a while.’

When you live in multiple interiors for short bursts of time and on a budget, especially in different countries and continents, you get used to things not quite working, or illogical layouts, bad plumbing, pests, damp and long-term problems that will need work and time that you don’t have, because you are only investing a year, or less, of your life in that property.

Case in point: whilst spending a month in Alexandria to study Arabic, David and I didn’t have the money, time or inclination to move from the flat we found by word-of-mouth. It was on the 17th floor, dusty and filled with mouse droppings. The bathroom window had smashed glass and the kitchen had cockroaches. We also had a nightly visit from a rat, until David killed it. We kept telling ourselves, it is only a month, then we are moving on.

It turned out, our next rental property was pretty awful too. It was cheap, dirty, and in a noisy street, but was in the right location, in Central Cairo.

So we  were living as impoverished students for so long that we got used to modest conditions. I sewed my own curtains, we rode bikes instead of having a car and went to charity shops for clothes.

Marrying in your early 20s and being part of Generation Y means this: that you start with nothing. That is, nothing materially, but bursting with all the good humour and naivety to yoke your lives together.  Now, seven years since our wedding, having lost our daughter, I vowed to customise our life, and work towards better quality in everything: in our home, our purchases, our friends and our time. Life, family and love is precious. They require investment and effort.

So, the first step to making a fresh start, reader, is to take time in researching where you are going to go, and what exactly you are looking for.

I took time selecting the neighbourhood. Spending more doesn’t necessarily mean better quality of life, you need to weigh up many factors. A nice house with bad neighbours is a disaster waiting to happen. As the Arab saying goes:

الجار ثم الدار

the neighbour, then the house

In other words, the area has to be your priority before falling in love with all the storage space. What kind of community would you like around you? If you enjoy intellectual stimulation, live in a university town, if you love hustle and bustle, move closer to a market town. Your neighbours are affected by the environment and surrounding resources.

Going deeper in the countryside meant more square footage for our money, so more space for our family to visit and stay, but more distance from the capital. What we needed was warmth and functional facilities. I wanted a garden, and quiet, two things that can’t be gained in a city, for love nor money.

And my health is worth it. My habitat, the place I eat and sleep in, the place I share my life with my husband, has vastly improved compared to anything I’ve lived in before, and it matters that the cottage is well structured, and that I can hear birds singing.

Step two is subject to the amount of distance you want from your old life. It entails taking a break from social media. I quit Facebook altogether, and felt better for it. If there are people in your life that you have an unbalanced relationship with, you will realise it.

Your time is better spent nurturing relationships with those that you respect and who share your values. Even a short break from WhatsApp/Instagram will help un-cloud the fog of confusion around who is supportive in you life and who isn’t.

It isn’t easy to break up with bad friends, it takes guts. But every time you do, you revive your soul a little, and bow to peer pressure a little less. Your self-reliance muscles strengthen and you realise that the approval and acceptance you once looked for was there all along in your life, held by people that reveal themselves in the most difficult moments.

The third step is the space and time to explore the occupation and pursuits that make you happy. This part takes longer than you may think.

After I graduated, I thought I would settle into a career smoothly. Some opportunity would fall into my lap. In fact, trying to identify a career path was hard. I listed my skills, and my interests, I went to career fairs and finally chose academic publishing. That time thinking about what suited me was worth it, better than being in a dead-end position that I would dread every day forever. And I am happy now, earning money for doing what I enjoy.

Your happiness is worth it. It is worth every ounce of effort, and every clear moment you say ‘no’ to unreasonable requests, and every clear moment you pursue the best for yourself.  And what is it you are sacrificing? Possibly the expectations of others? They don’t have to live with the consequences of your poor decisions, but you do.

 

 

 

On Metaphor

In the Arabic language, the study of rhetoric, ʻilm al-balāgha, is fascinating.

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There are verses in the Qur’an that take metaphor, language and philosophy and lyrically blend them all together in one, startling space.

There is a beautiful type of extended metaphor in the Qur’an, and this particular verse (below) I like to think about when it comes to the death of a loved one, and the guilt over our part in their death:

 

إِنَّمَا مَثَلُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا كَمَاء أَنزَلْنَاهُ مِنَ السَّمَاء فَاخْتَلَطَ بِهِ نَبَاتُ الأَرْضِ مِمَّا يَأْكُلُ النَّاسُ وَالأَنْعَامُ حَتَّىَ إِذَا أَخَذَتِ الأَرْضُ زُخْرُفَهَا وَازَّيَّنَتْ وَظَنَّ أَهْلُهَا أَنَّهُمْ قَادِرُونَ عَلَيْهَآ أَتَاهَا أَمْرُنَا لَيْلاً أَوْ نَهَارًا فَجَعَلْنَاهَا حَصِيدًا كَأَن لَّمْ تَغْنَ بِالأَمْسِ كَذَلِكَ نُفَصِّلُ الآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ (10:24)  f

 

  • The parable of the life of this world is but that of rain which We send down from the sky, and which is absorbed by the plants of the earth [37]whereof men and animals draw nourishment, until – when the earth has assumed its artful adornment and has been embellished, and they who dwell on it believe that they have gained mastery over it[38] – there comes down upon it Our judgment, by night or by day, and We cause it to become [like] a field mown down, as if there had been no yesterday. [39] Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people who think – 10:24 (Asad)

 

I went to a baby’s funeral yesterday, and I thought hard about this metaphor. As human beings, we accomplish incredible things, death-defying acts, we are capable of breathtaking architecture, and tremendous charity, but when a baby dies, when we lose a member of our human family, we are utterly helpless. We are reminded that, though we may believe we have ‘mastery’ over everything, we do not create life, nor do have any hope in demanding our own immortality.

Every farmer who prays for sunny days during hay making understands this helplessness, as do the doctors who must tell another young patient that they have stage 4 cancer. Every mother who loses her child feels her insignificance, just as the poet who has knowledge of Arabic feels upon reading the Qur’an, even one like Labid whose poem was written by scribes in gold ink.

When Umar (ra) asked Labid, the famous pre-Islamic poet who had embraced Islam, to recite for him some of his poetry, Labid began to recite the Qur’an. “This is not what I asked you,” Umar remonstrated. Labid replied: “Well, I have given up composing poetry after Allah gave me al-Baqarah and aal-Imraan.” (Narrated from Qurtubi)

Words are the Religion

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Your Daddy is dyslexic. His mother and father had both left school by the age of 11, so when he was 14, he had decided that he hated English class. The teacher made him read aloud.

In their home there were tabloid newspapers, and picture books when they had been young. Now, there is an old radio and three televisions. These are the windows into the outside world. They didn’t go to church, and until today never had central heating.

When I met him, in a mosque after walking the Marylebone High Street, the childhood he described was an age away from where we were.

He was only 16 when he began to attend the Sufi circle at his local mosque. This place had provided a balm, a healing for the life he had come from. They chanted ancient words in Arabic, as foreign to him as eating with chopsticks.

I was born, just as he was, a child in a big family calling a council estate my home. The social housing in East London brought together many kinds of people. My English neighbours were alcoholics that had never gotten married, whose children were mistakes. There were petty criminals and scary dog breeders. We, like the other immigrant families, lived among the neglected indigenous population of England.

I was instilled with a deep sense of moral obligation towards God and my family. Our Muslim identity was something we breathed at home, praying together and learning together. Achieving academically was very important.

When we were moved to a better neighborhood, and I attended school in Hertfordshire, that is when I learned what it meant to be different. There was a girl in my class whose father was a Tory MP, another girl whose sister was at Cambridge. Their houses were enormous, with thick carpet and big gardens and lovely bathrooms. I would go home where the 6 of us lived on the first-floor and devour my library books.