Thursday 31 July 2008

Summer Wedding in Essex

I got about halfway through yesterday, when long-suffering sister e-mailed me to wish me happy anniversary. I nearly jumped off my seat; we had both forgotten again (we do so every year). It was too late to plan anything because we had a wedding to go to (who has a wedding at 4pm on a Wednesday?) so I picked up a gift of attar (scent) on the way home and got the kids ready for the wedding.

Hubby loved his present, so that put me in a good mood as did our drive through Essex (it was still bright when we left home at 6.30 so we got beautiful views. We got there for seven (4pm by Asian Mean Time as opposed to GMT). The meal was planned for 7pm and was served at 9pm, so they too were obviously running by AMT.

The wedding was at Quendon Parklands, a beautiful old mansion set in a deer park. The evening was a perfect English summer evening, warm with a fresh breeze. The food was plentiful, delicious and varied (plus we were joking with the waiters, so they kept coming back and piling on more). My parents, sisters and cousins were also invited as were many family friends, so we had an absolutely terrific time. We stuck our fingers in the chocolate fountain, we ate too much, we explored the house. It seems that when we go somewhere this posh (they had Molton Brown handwash and lotion in the loos), it brings out the hick in us (unpretentious I say). My sisters kept sticking cutlery in my clutch to wind me up, and Fashionista Sister kept pointing out old bald men for Long-Suffering Sister to marry.

We told the little kids drinking juice at the fountain that it was beer (“Daaaad, a lady told us we’re drinking beer” “What!? Where? That’s pineapple juice, she’s lying”), we wandered around in the grounds with the kids interrupting people’s romantic moments, hubby managed to stop the (horrendous) live music and get the kids on the mic singing “Mountain’s of Mecca” (me and my aunty nearly died of embarrassment).

We nicked the box of mutant, fist-sized strawberries from the chocolate fountain and ate the lot and also managed to lose Gorgeous in the mansion (the waiters were baby-sitting him). The kids found a secret garden and we ended the night gazing up at the stars.

I was a bit annoyed about the timing of the wedding, how far away it was and that it fell on our anniversary. However, when I got there, it was one of the loveliest evenings I have had in a long time. When I got home (at 11.30) to change the woozy kids for bed, a spoon fell out of Little Man’s jacket and Little Lady announced: “That was a horrible wedding, it made my legs tired” – no pleasing some people.

I’m sitting her now with my herbal tea and aching body and wondering how the bags under my eyes got so big, but also with some lovely memories.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Preparing for Ramadan

It seems early to mention it, but we have only a month left to the most blessed month of the year. For some reason this has been on my mind for the past week and I have been thinking about preparation, both physical and mental.

The Sahaba would spend six months of the year waiting for Ramadan to come, and the other five months recalling the blessings of the last Ramadan and worrying that they had not made the most of it.

We have our wonderful Eids which we celebrate, but it seems to me that Ramadan, although a month to reflect, is also a cause for celebration, a mercy, an opportunity and a blessing.

I think the most important thing is to get our minds in the right place to make the most of this time, take as many blessings as possible from it and for me, teach my children about it.

A request. I would love to see your ideas, posts or any links you come across to Eid and Ramadan activities, crafts and inspiration. I’d be grateful if people would kindly leave their comments and links.

Reading Maths Books for Fun

I often come across the attitude that stories are a waste of time and that fiction is useless. On the one hand I get these views from traditional Asian parents (mine included) that believe that children should sit and read worthy books only (because Advances Statistics in maths makes great bedtime reading) and on the other hand from devout Muslims who believe that anything outside of religious texts (and necessary school textbooks at a stretch) are mukrooh (permitted but disliked) because they waste time and are of no benefit.

Perhaps this attitude is a contributory factor to the current stagnancy of thought in much of the Muslim world. I strongly believe that any great scholarly endeavour, philosophy or movement needs creativity and imagination – whether academic or Islamic.

Fiction helps us to imagine what is outside the limited world we live in, the possibilities that may exist. It helps us to think about what might happen in any given situation, how people might behave and their motivations for doing so, a level of insight that experience can only give us with a lot of suffering or with old age. Reading about other people, will help us understand people that are very different to us – people of a different country or race. You can’t hate or judge people if you figuratively walk a mile in their shoes, but you can understand them and speak to them a bit more clearly.

Perhaps this is why, whilst Eastern scholars are as capable (who are we to judge?), it is Western scholars who are so well-loved and seen as very relevant and accessible. The likes of Imam Zaid Shakir, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Shaykh Abdul-Hakim Murad, Tariq Ramadan and many others stand out because they are able to understand how people feel and speak to them in a language and regarding issues which are relevant to them.

Reading maths books will not give us this quality (although it might provide the added bonus of turning us into geeks). Reading Islamic texts is important, but alone they are serious, sometimes without any context (the exception being the Seerah’s – biographies of the Prophet (PBUH) - which are full of emotion and detail) and often don’t relate to our lives today.

What happens when we provide ourselves and our children with the knowledge of the great texts – the tafseers, seerah’s, books of hadith and treatises of law and then allow our imaginations to run with how we use that knowledge in our lives, how we get it to people, how we bring ourselves closer to our Rabb (SWT) with it? Perhaps we can make these great texts come alive once more as when they were written?

Monday 28 July 2008

Sick of Disney

Despite my best efforts to find alternatives to television for my children (including not having one), Little Lady has developed a thing for all things female and Disney which has me worried. I know it’s not a big deal for little girls to like all things pretty, pink and princessy, but I am always concerned with what my children are learning and the values they are picking up. I like that Disney-type cartoons emphasise kindness and good behaviour in a positive way, but even this is less and less the case as even cartoons for small children become more grown-up and cynical in tone. The movie Enchanted is a case in point, where the princess’s innocence and goodness is a big part of the joke.

In a way it’s easier to police against things like nudity and violence, but the real worry for me are things like stereotypes, underlying attitudes or prejudice and the values which are presented to us. An excellent example is given here with regards to Aladdin and the stereotype displayed therein. Arabs with big noses, heavy comedy accents and swords? Check. All the goodies have an American accent and Caucasian features? Check (Aladdin is based on Tom Cruise). So what does this tell our children?

Also what does Disney tell us about women? All the heroines are beautiful. So in a child’s minds we are equating virtue firmly with physical beauty. This is the opposite of what I want to teach my daughter. J K Rowling’s quote in the Telegraph newspaper regarding slimness comes to mind:

"I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny a thousand things, before ‘thin’."

I agree with her sentiment. Virtuous, kind, good, useful, intelligent, brave, thoughtful - a thousand things that I’d like Little Lady to be before beautiful. Disney’s is a very powerful, visual medium however, so what you see is goodness is beauty and any other message is secondary.
The other thing that causes me concern is the level of hayah (modesty) in these cartoons. As it is, we are going to have a big struggle on our hands with trying to instil modesty in our children in the anything goes world we live in. It’s one thing to be strict and tell our children they can’t have boy/girlfriends, quite another to create a mindset that helps them to behave with hayah as they enter their adult lives. If they are learning at a very young age, that the purpose of life is to find a boyfriend and fall in love, where does that leave us? (with Disney, the magic is always in the kiss isn’t it?).

Of course Disney isn’t the only offender, but it most certainly seems to be the most effective one. Unfortunately, the Islamic alternatives are not always as good viewing for kids. They have the best intentions and you can see how much thought and effort has been put in, but they aren’t always entertaining, so you find that the kids don’t want to watch anymore (maybe that’s a good strategy). Any suggestions out there, especially online, would be most welcome.

Book Review: Alessandro Baricco –Silk

A very short book at 148 sparsely written pages, I read this in one day on the bus and in between chores at home.

This is the story of a nineteenth century French silkworm trader and his travels between France and Japan, then described as the end of the world. It is also the story of his journey between his wife "with a voice like velvet" and the strange mute concubine "without oriental eyes" he meets in Japan. The kind of romantic themes I usually avoid, but this books intensity and descriptions of exotic birds, Japan’s forest’s and unusual people arrested me.

This is a beautifully written book, although highly stylised (I found this even more surprising as it is a translation from the original Italian by Ann Goldstein). It’s the kind of book that I would normally label pretentious, but this writer gets away with this style because of the beauty of his words and the fact that this is actually a hauntingly lovely story.

Towards the end, the style of the story was such that I knew there had to be a revelation. What I found was that I put this book down at its end somewhat unsatisfied and with a longing for a different kind of ending, but also a longing to know more.

The Joy of Meetings

One thing that jobs in the public sector all seem to have in common (common to all of the places I have worked in anyway) is their love of long, boring meetings. If you can say it in an e-mail, in a few words or in a quick meeting, then it will be said in a long painful meeting. There will be power-point (or death by power-point as it is known here). There will be handouts which will languish for years at the bottom of our drawers. There will always be one person who has to speak up at “any other business”. And I will spend the whole hour(s) stifling yawns.

The yawning is rude enough, what’s worse is my tendency to daydream. I lack the ability to concentrate on one thing for long (a product of my pop-culture and sound-bite obsessed, fast-paced, shallow cultural upbringing) unless it is really incredibly absorbing (my lunch). It’s mortifying to sit there trying to concentrate only to zone out without realising and zone back in ten minutes later without having taken in a word.

So here’s my list of top ten things to do in a meeting:

1) Practise my drawing. I can’t even doodle, but I fancy myself (in my dreams) as an artist.
2) Day-dream, free-associate and let your mind wander and see what it tells you. Just don’t get caught.
3) Write up your to-do list (work, home, chores, things you just haven’t got round to)
4) Think up henna patterns (much like 1)
5) Plan your dinner (and tomorrows)
6) Pull faces at your colleagues, wink at them. Just don’t get caught.
7) Do some brain-storming/mind-mapping for ideas for your blog, book, crafts or
8) Watch the black spot in my vision, if I look at it, it drifts across the room.
9) Stretch your toes
10) Look at other people's shoes

Just off to a meeting.

"I'm never bored anywhere; being bored is an insult to oneself." - Jules Renard

Saturday 26 July 2008

Courgette Curry

One of my colleagues at work, a very sweet lady with green fingers, presented me with these courgettes from her allotment. Food you grow yourself and then pick fresh tastes so much more intense and flavoursome, so I decided to make courgette curry.

2 medium onions - diced
2 tablespoons olive oil (or sunflower if you prefer)
inch-long peice of ginger, peeled and crushed
4-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 courgettes/zuchinni - peeled and diced
2 bell peppers one green one red - diced
5 medium potatoes peeled and cut thick slices
2 tomatoes - diced
1 green tomato (if available) - halved and sliced
3 green chillis - chopped small
medium bunch green coriander - chopped (provides handful)
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds - ground/crushed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds - ground/crushed
1 teaspoon red chilli powder (increase, decrease or omit to suit taste)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric/haldi powder
1 heaped teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon salt (adjust as required)
1 cup water

Saute onions in oil till golden brown. Add ginger and garlic and cook for further two minutes. Add green chillis, turmeric, red chillis powder, garam masala, cumin and coriander seeds, tomato paste and cook for a further minute. Add tomatoes and courgette and cup of water and cover pot. Leave to cook for 15 minutes or until courgettes almost cooked through (check to see of the edge of a spoon cuts through).
Add green and red bell peppers, green tomatoes, potatos and fresh coriander. Cover and leave to simmer until potatoes cooked through.

We Love The Weekend

Oh how I love the weekend, it feels like ages since I have had a proper two days of rest at home so this weekend we will be:

Cooking the lovely courgettes my friend gave me from her allotment and making some of these kebabs to go with them.

Watching these video's from Sister Umm Nassim's excellent and useful blog with my children.

Visiting my gran as she makes me feel very, very loved ("Daughter!! where have you been, three days! I thought you'd forgotten about me, come sit here...").

Calling the in-laws in Pakistan and checking up on the lovely new bride.

I might also have a go at these lovely looking cookies from Sister UmmiHabibati's blog if I get a chance.

Putting my bomb-site of a house back in order (managed to convince better half we don't need more building work - yipppeeee).

Trying to get all of the spare furniture my husband collects (four beds, computer desk, cot, bikes etc) into storage and sold insh'Allah (will be having a busy afternoon on gumtree.

Get some extra sleep in.

Friday 25 July 2008

Happy Jummah – Hope and Reconciliation

I’m so pleased it’s the precious Jummah Day. I’m finally starting to feel like myself (no way can jet lag last a week can it?) and need to sort a few important things out. Top of the list is the one that is make or break for me. I’ve had a little fall-out with my mum (as soon as I got back from Pakistan) and broke my golden rule of staying silent and answered back and made things worse.

My pride being what it is, I decided to stay away from her and not go back for the next few months so that they everyone knows how hurt I feel (very grown up). I’ve managed to last a week and have felt ill all this week because of it. I cried my eyes out last night in salah. When you face Allah (SWT) you can neither lie to him, nor is there any point in lying to yourself. Whoever’s fault an argument is, I should try to end it. Even when my parents are angry with me or I with them, I should keep going back and trying to serve them until they have to forgive me.

The following two hadith kept coming to mind in my prayer last night:

Abu Hurayra reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "Disgrace! Disgrace! Disgrace!" They said, "Messenger of Allah, who?" He said, "The one who fails his parents or one of them when they are old will enter the Fire." [Al-Adab al-Mufrad Al-Bukhari]

Abu Ayyub al-Ansari narrates that Rasulullah (PBUH) said: "It is not right for a man to abandon his brother for more than three days." [Bukhari, Muslim].

So today I am going to get flowers, fruit and sweets on the way home and slink over to mum’s house and risk a good slapping (you’re never too old for a good smack in her book as kooky little sis will testify). I hope Allah accepts my intentions and mum stops being cross.

Happy Jummah all and may Allah (SWT) make this day blessed and useful for you and accept all of your dua’s insh’Allah.

"And your Rubb has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honour. And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say: `My Rabb! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young.” ~ Al-Quran 17:23-24

Abu 'Isa Al-Mughirah bin Shu`bah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Prophet (PBUH) said, "Allah has forbidden you: disobedience to your mothers, to withhold (what you should give), or demand (what you do not deserve), and to bury your daughters alive. And Allah dislikes idle talk, to ask too many questions (for things which will be of no benefit to one), and to waste your wealth” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Summer 2008 in Lahore: Aqeeqah For My Boys

Whilst we were visiting Pakistan, one of the most important things we had to do was perform the sunnah (tradition of the Prophet PBUH) of aqeeqah for both of my sons. We did this for Little Lady when we visited four years ago and the boys were long overdue:

Samurah bin Jundub (RA) reported that Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said "Every child is mortgaged by its aqeeqah. It should be slaughtered for him or her on its seventh day, the child’s hair should be shaved, and he or she should be named." [an-Nasai, Abu Dawud and others]

Usually people send the money for this "back home" and it is done for them without sight of blood and guts or indeed the animal they are sacrificing (although there are services in the UK now). My parents have done this for me and my siblings, but my husband attended a talk at his local masjid which persuaded him otherwise. The imam emphasised the importance of keeping this sunnah alive and not relegating it out of sight.

So with this in mind, my better half, brothers-in-law and dad-in-law set off to the "bakra mandi" (goat market) and did not return until the evening, with four goats, two butchers and covered to their knees in muck but victorious. They were tied outside the house where the kids played with them and then brought in for slaughter. We tried to keep the children inside with us to prevent them seeing the slaughter and becoming afraid. Alhamdulillah, they insisted on watching from a window and then slipped back out to watch the zabeehah (slaughtering) take place. Little Lady pulled up a chair and presided over the whole affair like a "Chaudhrain" (lady of the manor).

To be honest I was rather uncomfortable (read grossed-out) by the piles of heads and hides, but I was glad that my children’s reaction was better than mine. This is an important sunnah of our beloved Prophet (SAWS), that many of us do not even know about or are unwilling to physically partake in. I hope it is something that our children can help to revive amongst us insh’Allah.

Salman bin Amir ad-Dabbi (RA) reported that Allah’s Messenger (SAW) said "The aqeeqah is prescribed for every child. Thus shed blood on its behalf, and remove the harm off it." [at-Tirmidhi]

"It is not their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him " (Al-Hajj 22:37).

Book Review: Rani Manicka – Touching Earth

Rani Manicka’s first book, The Rice Mother, was a wonderful read for me, one I savoured and revisited. My accidental discovery of her second novel in a Pakistani bookshop whilst looking for something to accompany my daytime siesta was therefore a nice surprise.

Right at the outset Manicka makes it clear that this book is nothing like her first and that readers will be disappointed if they are looking for something similar. Whereas the first is set in Malaysia around the Second World War and takes us on a journey through several generations of a family, this book is set mainly in London amongst the celebrities, beautiful people, drug users and prostitute’s of the city. Like the Rice Mother there are several narrators and the story unfolds in retrospect like pieces of a jigsaw falling into place as the novel progresses. Both books are also laden with symbolism and exotic imagery.

Touching Earth is the story of beautiful and mysterious Balinese twins who visit Britain and are caught up in drug-use and prostitution. Their story is interspersed with that of a stunning, cold mistress with a secret, a stick-thin perma-tanned first wife, the golden play-boy restaurateur, the tart with a broken hart, a celebrity hairdresser with a hygiene obsession and a rather neurotic and cold-hearted artist. Some of the voices are more believable than others. The pneumatic WAG (footballers girlfriend) wannabe is jealous and sneaky. The Irish mistress of a nasty Arab comes across as genuinely vulnerable. The play-boy is portrayed as having great energy and as engaging in his vices with furious abandon so that you are carried along by his recklessness, although at times his self-denial is not quite believable – but perhaps that is the effect of drugs on otherwise coldly rational people. The twins come across as slightly spaced out throughout the book, even before their heroin addiction, perhaps an effect of looking back over the story. It’s a testament to Ms Manicka’s writing that with so many narrators, the story does not become confused; the different protagonist’s voices are distinct enough to prevent this. Manicka herself also turns up in her book in an interesting literary device, but not one that I felt added much to the book.

I did notice in a few places, cheap-shot comments about Arabs and Islam sneaked in hinting at both as barbaric. I expected more from a writer who in her previous book refers to so many cultures and is herself well-travelled.

I did find the book very readable, at times almost compulsively so, but after enjoying The Rice Mother so much, Touching Earth was something of a disappointment. I found it often predictable and some of the characters were slightly stereotypical. For such a depressing book, the ending felt slightly too good-to-be true, with the ends all tied up neatly.

Monday 21 July 2008

Summer 2008 in Lahore: Visit to My Grandparents Village

This is my grandparents village. Our people originate from Kashmir (apparently) and before that from Palestine (that's the most popular theory) where they came over in Muhammed Bin Qasim's army to conquer Hind. They settled in the city of Sialkot, then about 150 years ago came to Jhelum, from whence they ended up in the small town of Parri (about a mile away). They always shake their head when mentioning this, as if wondering what possessed them to come here. About eighty years ago, my grandfather decided to have a go at settling the wasteland outside of the town and brought his five brothers and best friend (my other granddad) with him. They built their houses next to each other and farmed the land. Their children are now spread all over Pakistan, the Emirates and the UK and the little village is now a thriving hub of commerce with people travelling from other villages and the nearest town to shop here. The land is green and fertile.

Whenever we visit, we leave hot, dirty, noisy chaotic Lahore and drive for five hours. As we get nearer the weather gets cooler and the landscape more beautiful. After the heat and bustle of the city, its as if you are ascending into a haven of peace. The air is clean and crisp and its a pleasure to just breathe. It really is a homecoming of a kind, back to our extended family, back to the place where all our people are buried and back to the land that built my family's fortunes.
The green dome is the roof of a tomb. I am not sure of the history, but the deceased was a pious man of some repute. His tomb says Baba Sher (Old Man Lion).

These mountains form the backdrop to the village. At one time they were famous for salt and wildlife. The British would join the local landowners to hunt for boar, deer and lions. Now boar and wolves remain with cattle also roaming up there. My grandfather also used to tell us stories about the scary things (Jinn) he has seen up there whilst passing through or collecting firewood when he was a young man.

A Glance Into The Future?

I met the strangest lady today. She visited with one of the councillor’s and was trying to explain to us what she wanted. She kept mentioning lots of things I was interested in: spirituality, the interface between art and science, holding onto our heritage and connecting with our roots, the way things are connected, networks, mental health, the importance of quiet times and spaces. I just got a bit concerned when she kept mentioning hearing voices. She was a very cultured and educated person, who used to be a local teacher, but was now disabled and appeared very confused. The Councillor of course missed all of this and explained to the lady that she wasn’t as clever as her so she much go away and put her words into bullet points - that threw the lady off a bit.

It was all a bit disconcerting. I kept thinking I recognised some of what she was saying, and then we’d end up at a dead end again. I almost felt as if I got a flash of myself in many years time. Maybe I should give in now and stick to shopping, chat-shows and reading the gossip pages? Pakistani people seem to have this theory anyway: if you study too much, you eventually go mad (my better half also seems to share this theory to some extent). A sentiment shared in this clip.

Summer 2008 in Lahore: Street Life

Sunday 20 July 2008

Summer 2008 in Lahore: Visit to the Wagha Border

The Wagha Border is that part of Pakistan's border with India where all of the flag-raising type ceremonies take place (not too far outside Lahore). I expected this to be a boring trip, but it actually turned out to be one of the best days of the holiday. I was surprised by the excitement, noise and patriotism of the people. After much discussion and comment about Pakistan's downward slide, this was a refreshing change.

The writing says "baab-e-azadi" (gate to freedom)

The flag-lowering ceremony tales place at 6pm every day and is preceded by much marching, shouting and glaring by the border guards who are very fierce looking. There were three members of the public also present, who apparently turn up every day. Dressed in the colours of the national flag they prompt the crowd to cheer, shout slogans and shout takbir (say "Allah ho Akbar"). A few meters away, on the other side of the border, sit the Indian crowd. I assume they do the same, but we couldn't hear over the crowd.

After the ceremony, we wandered over to the scary looking guards to take photo's with the kids, and they were actually quite nice, smiling for photo's and allowing the children to sit with them on their horses. From where we took the photo's, I could see straight over the barbed wire to fields on the Indian side. I looked over and thought, its the same earth, created by the same Rabb, no difference at all.

More pics here.
Extract from Michael Palin programme here.

Saturday 19 July 2008

Summer 2008 in Lahore: The Local Baghbanpura Bazaar

These pictures are of the market local to my in-laws house. As Lahore's population has exploded over the last ten years and outlying villages have been swallowed up by the city, this bazaar has gone from being a small local market to one of Lahore's busiest. The photo's don't really give you an indication of the sheer volume of noise - motorbikes, haggling women, street vendors hawking their goods, animals, horse-drawn buggies, donkey carts and truanting schoolboys.

This shop was an absolute crafters/hoarders delight with walls full of row after row of beads, crystals, sequins, diamantes and embroidery gems.

Gold is traditionally given in Pakistan during weddings, but the price is now so high that ordinary people cannot afford this tradition. What jewellers do instead is use a little gold and a lot of beads, glass, semi-precious stones and coloured cord to make up the set. The shop above had beautiful designs.