Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Poem The Valley of Division

The Valley of Division 

Taken in the Cradle of Mankind, Gauteng, South Africa


I’m tired of mustering up the courage
to be myself
So far
its proved to be
                                                an elusive beast
I’m not sure
it even exists

I thought there were treasures
shimmering
 in the cave of my soul
nothing tepid
brutally pristine

But every time I stooped to pick one up
dust
flew through
my fingers

My soul facing its earthly life looks out
through vitreous eyes 
filtering

layers of shoulds and oughts and musts have occluded my moon

Seventy seven times have I skinned myself
looking for me

Each skinning leaves me raw and stinging

Every time I look into the mirrors of eyes I see a different me
so which one am I?
There is one man who…
one man whom I can call a liberator…

when I look into his eyes and he into mine
I see nothing
but light
no edges to myself
So why
can’t I stay
in that vision?


What is it that draws me back
from staying there in the light?

Yet
I return to
the valley of division.

Tenderness wells up and tells me

to listen

Be – not your self –


just be.


Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Qur'an and I. The Qur'an and Now.

Recently some friends and I started up another Qur’an study circle for women in South Africa. Some thoughts arising…

The Qur’an and I. We go way back. But not to childhood.

Growing up all I knew of the Qur’an was that I had a precious page of it folded up in a Persian enameled book-shaped locket, and that my grandmother used to sit aside quietly and read it a lot. It was only in my late teens when my father suddenly (or so it seemed to me) started to engage with it that I really became aware of it. With the family then transplanted from Knightsbridge to Texas, he was spending hours reading it, researching it and sharing his discoveries with a reverential audience of American and British converts to Islam. I did not know it then but this period of his activity as a teacher was to form the core foundation of his life’s work, and imbued in me a sense of the living Qur’an.

This living Qur’an was – is – so much more than a mere book.  For me it has taken on the role of a powerful link, a reference point to wholesome guidance, spiritual insight, requiting moments of anguish and despair, and also on occasion functioning as an oracle. Through it one hears the voice of Allah, mediated through time and history and the Prophet’s presence (S), but the voice of divinity nonetheless. And it pleases my musical soul to hear in its cadences and rhythms that follow their own internal coherence, at times formal, at other times abstract, the voice of truths beyond time, yet fully within the alif, ba’, ta’ (abc) of temporal language.

It was those handful of years when my father gave a profusion of talks on selected Suras of the Qur’an which drilled into me certain verses til they became the tent pegs of my little tent in the desert of my wanderings.

Hearing specific verses come up repeatedly, as my father explained the Qur’an by referring to other parts of the Qur’an, fused them into my neural pathways. These were the truth posts my pinball self pinged against in the gameplay of life. And when challenges presented themselves – as they still do – some verses just materialize to dissipate looming despair, encourage me, reassure me, or hold up a mirror of reckoning. If my feelings ever shroud those reverberations in my soul, grabbing the Qur’an and opening it at any random point sucks me into that knowingness again. That knowingness is the  certainty that Allah is above all in charge of everything, that everything seen and unseen remain in perfect balance, that His mercy overcomes all things, that there is a reason for everything, that the point of it all is not meaningless suffering but a movement towards light from darkness.

I never went to Islamic Sunday school. I never attended madrasa. I was never schooled in Islamic catechism in any other way other than through the living example of my father and family and the surrounding community of sincere western Muslims.  These living books were naturally supplemented by printed versions. As I learnt my Deen from my late teens through to my early twenties, I found I had to avoid looking towards the contemporary Middle East for models and paradigms of ideal Muslim living, for whatever I saw there confused me and left me perplexed and angry. What my limited vision and insight saw was so inconsonant with what I knew to be our beautiful Deen. And so I clung to the horizons right before me.

Thus my approach to the Qur’an was shaped by the principle that the Qur’an must speak to me in the here and now. In whatever circumstance I may find myself the Qur’an must be relevant.

Perhaps the most visceral experience of the presence of the Qur’an in my life was when as a young woman I found out I had breast cancer. During that trial it felt like huge enormous parts of me – of who I thought I was – were falling away, crumbling like an ancient temple in the face of a pounding flood. Once the water had swept past, all that remained were pillars pointing high up into the sky. And each of these pillars was made of a verse, the ones etched most deeply into my conscious awareness. These ayat pulsated with life and light and remained the beacons that enabled me, whatever was left of me, to weather the chemical storm and rearrangement of self-perception.

The Qur’an and Now

Over the years I have spent many hours in the company of Muslim women hungry for more knowledge of the Qur’an, studying and discussing its verses and themes. As the pendulum of history has slowly started to swing in the direction of enfranchising women,  women have started to engage with the Qur’an on our own terms.  We have been striving to develop a relationship with the Qur’an that goes far beyond patriarchal claims to knowledge or superiority and to the business of beingness. The mystery of what it means to be human, to be a servant of God – that is what engages us. I have gained so much delight from sharing the approach I have learnt with others: each session has felt like getting into a spaceship and  shooting for the stars.

The understandable awe and reverence felt for the Qur’an among Muslims as the Book of God has often acted as a barrier to engaging with it and gaining meaning from it. Among non-Arab speakers, access to Qur’an can seem impenetrable, for Arabic is a complex language. For native Arabic speakers, it should not be assumed that Qur’anic Arabic is automatically intelligible, for modern parlance has dragged certain words away from their original contexts and lent them different shades of meaning. So for them the challenge is not to read with blind assumptions. It has become clear to me that Arabic had been invented for the Qur’an – the Qur’an itself intimates as much. The intricate root and branch system of Arabic reveals forests of meaning that bring colour and light and bedazzlement to the body of this revelation.  These forests confound linear literary models, plunging us into a wonder-world  of inter-connectedness, allowing us to taste Tawhid, the underlying unity behind variegated life experience.

Never has the Qur’an been more accessible, and never has mankind been in more dire need of it. Yet at the same time an opposite truth also presents: greater accessibility means more opportunities for misinterpretation. The challenge in how to negotiate the relationship between reason and revelation has never been as tough as it is for Muslims today.  For this task we need women’s voices to integrate with men’s, and discourses that take us out of halls of self-righteous judgment into fields of ethics and morals,  out of polarizing ‘Othering’ and into oneness, away from shadowplay into the zenith sunlight of the love of God.






Friday, 6 January 2017

The Barzakh Dream

Shaykh Ahmad once had a dream in which the land in front of the Bab Kheymegah (the place where the Ahl al-Bayt’s tents had been pitched at the time of the battle of Karbala, and where Qasim, the son of Imam Husayn, is buried) had become a vast, open green ‘desert’. Beautiful trees stood tall, and hundreds of streams flowed in a grid-like pattern, while other plants abounded. In it he saw some people just sitting on these square islands and others moving about, jumping over the streams. He saw some people who looked familiar, and then suddenly noticed his own father stepping across a stream. He rushed over to him and asked, ‘What is this place?’
Shaykh Muhammad Husayn replied, ‘This is the Barzakh of the Mu’mineen.’
‘How come some people move around freely while others just sit?’ asked Shaykh Ahmad.
His father replied, ‘Everyone has been given a maqām that reflects the level of their ‘amal (deeds) in their lives. So you see some like us are able to move freely, for Allah has favoured us with good ‘amal.
Shaykh Ahmad woke up in a deep sweat.

This dream was narrated to me by our beloved paternal grandmother, Bibi Fadhila, may Allah have mercy on her soul, and was written down by me at the very time of narration. I spent many hours listening to her, sharing with me her memories and recorded much of it. For that I am so grateful and in due course will share more inshallah. Coming across this dream in my notebook today after fajr prayers, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the connection, for my heritage  (without pride), and was reminded I ‘belonged’ to some thread of light.

Let me therefore shed a little light on some of the elements of this dream.

Shaykh Ahmad was my paternal grandfather whom I never knew, other than through stories and his own children, my father, uncle and two aunts.  He also had five children from his first wife, but I was only privileged to know the youngest son of that group. Shaykh Ahmad died a few years before I was born to my parents. But the few photographs we had and regular visits from my grandmother rendered flesh unto his name and image  and Jiddo (Granpa) became a part of the fabric of my world, if a background one.

His story truly deserves a telling, but not here, not now. Suffice to say he and his four brothers were the legatees of a line of esteemed erudite ‘ulama (religious scholars) and spiritually awakened beings who originated from Mazandaran in northern Iran and settled in Karbala Iraq.

Shaykh Ahmad had been widowed some five years when he married our grandmother who was at the age of 14, it has to be said, very young to be a bride, but not, of course, according to the custom of the time. Their marriage was a truly loving one. From the many times Bibi and I conversed about her life story, whenever the conversation veered towards her husband her eyes would well up with tears, not out of loss but out of love.

The home they shared in Karbala was right down the alley opposite the Bab az-Zaynabiyyah. It has long since been demolished but a wonderful peep into that world can be had from reading my father’s autobiography ‘Son of Karbala’. My grandfather apparently lead many a prayer in the shrine of Imam Husayn (alayhi’s-salām), and welcomed many seekers of knowledge to his majlis (sitting place) in the burrani (outer quarters) of their home. Shaykh Ahmad would have known the shrine and its environs like the back of his hand.

The word Barzakh is very interesting. In this dream it is clearly the ‘interspace’ between this life and the next, the interim period between the world of form and the world of spirit, after death and before resurrection. Barzakh also means ‘barrier’, as in the Qur’anic verses (23:99-10; 25:53; & 55:19-20).  The term barzakh is often used metaphorically, and in the sense of a bridge or isthmus between different but contiguous states.

Lastly, the term maqām means station or level, literally, ‘where one stands’, and so it has a somewhat permanent connotation. It is often, therefore, contrasted in Sufi discourse with hāl, which means state or condition, and is therefore more transient. Both these terms are used in the context of discourses on spiritual progress as understood by Muslim luminaries. Ultimately the sincere wayfarer on the path of truth seeks to go beyond state and station.

May Allah have mercy on Shaykh Ahmad and reward him beyond measure.





Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Marmalade



Warning: this post is about something edible.  And not because Ramadan is almost upon us. The topic is not as left field as may appear in relation to the general thrust of this blog. Marmalade is both becoming and being, quite apart from 'being' Marmalade. Marmalade is a becoming, the transformation of a perishable, somewhat inaccessible fruit into a more durable delicacy that delights. Once it enters the addicionado's digestion, it contributes to beingness, fulfilling one half of Rumi's cook's adage of the two-fold adab of cooking -  the adab of enabling a lower order substance to unite with and sustain a higher order of being.

Seville Oranges: thick-skinned and sour.
So…

Marmalade: you either love it or hate it. Or come to love it – as I did. I’m speaking of bitter marmalade, made from Seville Oranges.

It wasn’t always so. Food regulations designate Marmalade as referring to citrus, but back in the 15th and 16th centuries a marmalade could have been used of other fruit. The actual word ‘marmalade’ originates from the Portuguese (marmelada) for a paste made of boiling up quince (marmelo) and honey which could be sliced as a sweetmeat (I first came across this treat as ‘membrillo’ in Spain).  Though fragrant and apple-like, quince is almost impossible to eat raw as its so hard, and oxidises quickly if sliced or grated. The Persians also make it into a morabba (jam or compote) where it turns a beautiful deep pink, but they also happily stew it with lamb (khoresh-e beh) when in season. My father likes to keep one or two in his study where it lends a perfumed fruity fragrance to the air.  But I digress!

A fun but aprocryphal explanation of the word’s origin relates to Mary Queen of Scots, for whom her mother’s French cook in France had made a confection of Spanish oranges to help her get well and ‘Marie est malade’ became Marmalade. Too simple by half but amusing nonetheless, and I’m inclined to believe there is something in the restorative powers of a good, fragrant, bitter marmalade.

For years I have been the marmalade maker in my family – joined later by my sister Aliya and occasionally by my mum. My father’s orchards (Spain, then South Africa) would annually provide a plethora of these thick-skinned inedible fruits waiting to find a place in the higher order of culinary delights. The only person in my family who ever used them raw was my uncle. In good Persian style he used them as a substitute for lemons, so sour was their juice.

Early on in my marmalade making career I stumbled upon a fabulous recipe in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book: St. Benoit 3-day marmalade. I adopted it as my own and adapted it as it suited me and circumstance. It has proven to be the easiest (and laziest) way to ease into the finnicketyness of processing produce. Many times I would groan at the bags of oranges left on my doorstep by my hopeful father, because for a batch of 8 jars you’d only need 6 oranges (and a lemon), and invariably the bag would hold around 20! Quite frankly slicing so many oranges in one go was arduous, especially if you wanted to shred the rind finely. Luckily my father prefers the chunky variety, enjoying these candied strips almost as a post-prandial digestive.

The 3-day marmalade fits in well with the ethos of the slowfood movement, whose philosophy I admire if not always adhere to. While it was a form of laziness that triggered my adoption of its methodology, it was the undoubted superiority of the final flavor that has kept me faithful to it.

The first day demands you slice up 6 oranges and a lemon and leave them soaking in water enough to cover. On the second day you bring it up to a boil and then simmer it for at least 30 minutes or so, long enough to cook but not to create a pulp.  The third day is when you weigh up the cooked fruit and measure out the sugar. I can't recall the recipe exactly but the ratio was something like 1.5 kg of sugar to 1kg of pulp, but I use much less sugar, perhaps 1.2kg, and add more lemon juice.  Culinary alchemy ignited by good intention transforms this fragrant mass into what I like to think is captured sunlight.  On this third and final day you will bring it to a rolling boil, toss in a tiny knob of butter so the scum moves to the sides of the pan, simmer until  setting point (anywhere between 20 minutes to 40, depending)  and seal it up in sterilized jars.



Since its unlikely anyone from the Women’s Institute will be reading this, I must confess that it’s the rigmarole for sterilising jars that used to put me off. The effort of locating suitable jars aside, the tedium of washing, boiling and then baking off jars does not appeal, even though it is essential. If you don’t sterilize your jars the marmalade will go off. I have cheated on occasion and depending on the climate, gotten away with it, but usually because the climate is cool and dry and the marmalade finds takers rather quickly. Nowadays of course it is far easier to source beautiful jars, ready for jamming.

The beauty of this 3-day marmalade – apart from enabling me to delay the task of gathering enough jars and sterilising them – is that the extra time coaxes out such a superior flavour. The maceration, cooking, cooling, and then cooking again, prods the oil sacs in the skin to release their aroma and draw down the favour of the fruit gods. The result is celestial. If you were to eat crystallized sunlight, it would be this 3-day marmalade.

And so it is time to share the recipe with many a proviso: you can tweak it to suit and still come up with a delicious marmalade. You can used less sugar if you prefer or brown sugar for a more caramelized version. You can remove the seeds and tie them up in muslin, add to the pan when the oranges are cooking and easily remove the bag, or, if you fancy feeling like a mad alchemist, you can stand there over the pot as the steam wafts its citrusy perfume and transports you to 15th century Andalusia and scoop them out with a slotted spoon. If your back allows it. I confess to hitting a nadir once when the batch my father sent me was in a sorry state: the tail end of the harvest, blackened by some blight and barely ‘orange’ in colour, I scraped off as much black as I could and was so exhausted by the effort that I didn’t even bother to remove the pips at any point and just bottled up the jam as it came. And it was still delicious, if a little ugly.

And one last thing: this gorgeous marmalade is as much about the jelly as the rind. The suspension of the marmalade will not and should not wobble like a store-bought packet jelly. There is a skill in the cooking that once gained will give you a light, pectinacious jelly that stands and sparkles to attention, embedding the chewy peel within.

 I took these photos almost two years ago - that's how long I've been intending to write this up!
Its actually hard to botch up Seville Orange marmalade. Try it. I dare you. Treat yourself to some crystallized sunlight!