Remaining emotionally alive


A few months ago my baby and I were sitting on a porch swing under the shade of my friend’s beautiful tree-lined garden. She had recently housed plump little hens in a homemade chicken coop, and they were happily pecking and scratching around our feet.

I asked after someone we both know, and she said:

‘since she broke up with that young man, it is difficult for her to open her heart again.’

I replied:

‘that is understandable, it only happened recently.’

and I thought about my own journey.

My friend continued:

‘her father is articulate about his feelings and sensitive to others. I think it is difficult for her to find someone in that image, most young men can’t talk about their emotions. ‘

I said :

‘there are many women who can’t either.’

What I meant by this is that I have learned that life is too short for me to surround myself with unsupportive women. There are people who have awful life events, but are blessed with a mature emotional vocabulary and a self-knowledge that allows them to heal. These people are light, and bring healing to others by drawing them to their light.

On the other hand, there are those whose life circumstances meant that they were never given an emotional education, as in they were taught to shut out deep trauma and engulf themselves in something pleasurable and not deal with their feelings. These people are darkness, and can pull us further into the dark.

What is it about our lives that, as we get older, we find more and more people in pain? I have found this helpful from Tiny Buddha:

It’s not easy to release a pain identity, particularly if you’ve carried it around for a long time. It may help to remember who you were before that experience—or to consider who you might have become if it hadn’t happened.You can still be that person, someone who doesn’t feel bitter or angry so frequently.

I have found looking through old photo albums very helpful. There is a lot that we manage to edit out of our personal narrative when experiencing a strong emotion. When we are angry with someone, a sibling for instance, it is easier to forget the sweet things they do for us, or the many kindnesses they have shown us.

I looked through old photos of myself with friends, on holiday and at home. What I think about is the warmth and love I experienced. And it reminds me that in the course of a lifetime:

  1. The little arguments and things that make us cross don’t matter at all.
  2. The huge, devastating emotional things matter at that moment, then they cease to matter.
  3. Worrying about the future has zero impact on it.

I often find myself wanting to know ‘What is the prognosis? Is this something I can tidily handle?’

But none of us knows. That is what is beautiful about being present. We are not our emotions, they are not our past and future. There is only now, and now I can understand there are some things within my control, most things are not. But why not use the things in our control to our advantage?

A heart can re-open, just as a body can heal. Reflection has strengthened me in many ways, and made me realise that my little son, the rainbow baby, is born of my love and loss.

He has also borne my love and loss.



Believing in your Vision


Martin Heidegger, in Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry reminds us:

‘…poetry never takes language as a material at its disposal; rather, poetry itself first makes language possible.’

And this means, to me, that articulating the empty spaces left inside us, just as poets do, shapes the way we feel, and subsequently, the way we think about the way we feel.

I remember in the weeks after Jannah died, my mother-in-law had no ability to comfort me. I cried at any moment, once when I was making tea in the kitchen, bent over and sobbing. She was cooking there at the time, and looked at me. She stood awkwardly, and watched me, but carried on stirring the spoon over the stove. It was so strange at the time, especially as I was told that she had herself had a late miscarriage. I wondered, how could a woman not sympathise with another woman? Over similar life experiences? But now I know why.

There is a spectrum of learning disabilities, weaving a complex web of needs for the person who suffers from them. Autism, and other conditions like it, has differing manifestations, but one behavior that I can recognise is that my mother in law couldn’t read emotions, and this meant she could not give comfort, to me nor her children or grandchildren.

A friend of mine who is a clinical psychologist told me that young children need their primary caregiver to frame the emotions they feel, and learn how to express those emotions. Being raised by an autistic parent who has trouble with their own emotions must make life far harder for their children. They have to find their own way.

This is where my memory of Heidegger’s use of poetry came to me. When at our most vulnerable, it is only poetry that makes it possible to discuss the darker things most social structures wish to suppress. Any functioning organisation, by virtue of its needs to continue functioning, needs its members to move on from grief, not dwell on death or war or exploitation and injustice. But poetry is where the language runs free, and where we find the most expressive empathy for what we feel.

Although I can look back now and see that the birth of a child after loss is in itself complex and filled with anxiety, I had this vision: I wanted to have a pleasant home, and to take my baby swimming, and to have weekends with grandparents and cousins sharing food and laughing. It was a difficult road, but it was in front of me, and it spurred me on.

And, I think, now we have gotten here, I can breathe.




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.


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.




Cousins of the Rainbow


The ethnic make-up of our diverse extended family is fascinating to me. Just as the British library is a mere glimpse into the collection that is our intellectual heritage, the Human Genome Project sequenced base pairs to give us insight into what it means to be a human being:

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was one of the great feats of exploration in history – an inward voyage of discovery rather than an outward exploration of the planet or the cosmos; an international research effort to sequence and map all of the genes – together known as the genome – of members of our species, Homo sapiens.

National Human Genome Research Institute

I love that it is described as ‘an inward journey’, it seems much like this blog. I try and gather evidence of our history anywhere I can, because snippets of articles help me find pieces of our family story, and get me wandering in all sorts of directions. Much like this quote below:

Indians, who began arriving in large numbers in the 1960s, were slower to mix. They are now doing so—but along Jewish, rather than Irish, lines. For them, assimilation follows education: according to research by Raya Muttarak and Anthony Heath, Indians with degrees are far more likely to marry whites. Indians are not so much marrying into the white majority as into its suburban middle class, says Shamit Saggar at the University of Essex.

The Economist on British Ethnic diversity

There is an abruptness to the language, and the scooping, labelled generalisations do nothing for the image of The Economist. Despite this, however, it is one of the only articles I have found that tackles the subject.

I certainly hope I get to write more about it, or, for that matter, read about it.


The Chapman Book

photo-1431898542497-133ad897e05f So, my little child, I am trying to decide how to continue the story. Far away from my parents, your grandparents, and their letters that crossed the Indian Ocean in the 1970’s during Emergency Rule in India, is the story of your father and his Anglo-Saxon family surname: Chapman.

Your surname is Chapman, after your father, my husband and his father before him. How your Indian mother met your English father I will tell you at a later stage, but for now, let me tell you about the historical records that bear the roots of your ancient name.

There is a Chapman motto I found in the Chapman book: Virtue thrives under oppression.

King William I , the Norman who conquered England in 1066, ordered a grand-scale survey of England and Wales to determine the amount of tax due, which was completed in 1086, and named the ‘Domesday’ book, so called because the decisions it held, like the Day of Judgement, were final. Written in Latin, all the King’s subjects, rich and poor had to be identified with a surname. Now, the name Chapman derives from the old German ‘choufman’ indicating someone who traveled the countryside as a merchant trader. We know that the Chapmans lived in England before the Normans, because their name is from Old German and they feature in the Domesday Book. In your veins is the Anglo-Saxon blood that came to Britain in the fifth century, originally from Denmark and Germany.

Your Granddad Chapman likes to recount the establishment of the Anglo-Saxons before the Normans invaded, and I like to recount the Indians before the British invaded.

The Emergency Rule in India

Your great-grandmother, my father’s mother, lived in Derwa, a village in Uttar Pradesh in Northern India. I remember her with white hair, a white sari and very fair skin. She spoke Purbi, a dialect which I could understand. She worked hard grinding wheat, and she knew intricate weaving techniques that she taught my elder sister. I still have some of the things she made.

She and my grandfather had seven children, six that survived. There is my eldest uncle, Rahmatulla, then Amanatulla, then a brother who died in infancy, after whom is my father, Barkatulla, then Habibulla, Aziz and the youngest, a girl, Muni who everyone says I resemble. When the children were young, my grandmother and grandfather moved from Derwa to a small industrial Muslim town close to Mumbai called Bhiwandi. Here, they invested in electric looms, as weaving had become more commercialised. Our family textile tradition came into the modern age.

However, the political landscape was hostile at the time, and the resulting policies affected their lives forever.

It started with Emergency Rule, that was declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi:

“Opposition leaders threatened a civil disobedience campaign to force the prime minister to resign, and many of her oldest cabinet colleagues and Congress Party advisers urged her to step down pending an appeal to India’s Supreme Court. Following instead the advice of her ambitious and energetic younger son, Sanjay, on June 26, 1975, Gandhi persuaded President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a national emergency, which empowered her to do whatever she considered best for the country for at least six months. The elite Central Reserve Police force, the prime minister’s palace guard, was ordered to arrest Desai and the ailing and aged Narayan, as well as hundreds of others who had worked with her father and Mohandas Gandhi in helping India to win its freedom from British rule. She then blacked out the entire region of Delhi in which the press was published and appointed Sanjay as her trusted personal censor of all future news leaders and editorials.” (

The Prime Minister had listened to her son Sanjay Gandhi, the politician that, according to the civil servant Anand Sarup:

“negated everything Jawaharlal Nehru had wrought for the running of a democratic India, and destroyed the old culture of the Congress party”. (

Sanjay Ghandi was a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, and he proved a disaster for Muslims in India. My father told me of the sterilisation campaign that was secretly taking place on Muslim men, that was an attempt to control the Muslim population. I didn’t believe it until I found evidence, which Sarup clearly provides when he describes his fraught relationship with Sanjay Gandhi:

“I got into real trouble with him over the target-driven vasectomy programme, which was widely known as Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project. Government officials were made responsible for ‘recruiting’ large numbers of ‘volunteers’ who would undergo vasectomy in return for some monetary payment. Besides the District Medical Officers, District Magistrates, Superintendents of Police, Excise Officers and almost all the officers who had some powers to put pressure on field level functionaries were told that if they expected the government to show them any consideration, they must ensure that the vasectomy target for their district was met.

As a result, anyone who went to see a government officer for any official work was likely to be asked to bring some people for vasectomy. What mattered to the government was the magic number they had to achieve. How this was achieved was immaterial. I am sorry that I have to say that during the Emergency officials indulged in the worst kind of torture to achieve their targets. While all communities suffered, the brunt of this approach to population control was borne by the Muslims. Perhaps the officials were carried away by the propaganda that the unwillingness of the Muslims to limit the number of their children was adding too many people to our already burgeoning population.”

As a result of Emergency Rule, an aggressive and oppressive Indian regime made lives intolerable. A McCarthyite paranoia was underway, only this one distrusted the poor and vulnerable.  This was the decade of the 70s, when your father’s white, working class English family in Britain witnessed Miners’ strikes and the world’s first test-tube baby in a Conservative Britain.

This was also the age when Britain joined the EEC and began borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, the same Fund that sought to curb the large Indian population:

“Sterilisation camps are not new to India; they have been part of the struggle to contain its population for more than forty years. At one point they weren’t even voluntary. In 1976, Sanjay Gandhi, the son of Indira and grandson of founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, initiated a widespread compulsory sterilisation programme. The IMF and World Bank were demanding action to curb India’s population. If numbers were not brought under control, the fledgling nation risked losing vital funds just as it was getting on its feet (after the Raj and partition).” (

My father, a privately educated young man in his early 20’s that spoke fluent Arabic and Farsi, was sent by a committee in Bhiwandi to go to Saudi Arabia and meet with journalists to publicise the plight of Indian Muslims to the rest of the Muslim world. he had recently married my mother, and they exchanged letters in this bittersweet moment of their history.