Sunday 31 May 2009

Craft Hoard

Forseeing a day full of sunshine, hubby, his brothers and their friend piled into the car to head to the boot fair at Dunton. After about three hours we had still sen less than half and gave up and spent another hour at the Barleylands boot.

You know when you have one of those moments that is more fantasy than real? One of the stall-holders at Dunton was having a clear-out of her studio to make space for classes. This being the case, she handed me a bag and told me to fill what I could for £1 - you can imagine I didn't need telling twice. I shoved in everthing I could get my hands on with the thought that what I couldn't use could go into my kids craft box or to friends children. (It didn't help that she kept encouraging me to fill the bag properly).

I played extra for the little paper trimmer because Little Man won't leave mine alone - the blue paper is a bag packed solid full of about 50 sheets of thick card which also cost me £1. The magazines are going to get chopped up for my inspiration file, childrens crafts and my latest little subject of interest - ATC's or Artists Trading Cards.

I loved these papers and will definitely have a go at creating something with them the first chance I get.

My favourite part of card-making: embellishments.

I do accept that there is more than I need here, so I am thinking baout some kind of give-away or passing on of this stuff (details to follow when I have thought this through properly insh'Allah).
I did also manage to find myself a little treat for £1 that's been on my arm all day:

Saturday 30 May 2009

Muslimah at Work - Shaking Hands

It’s general knowledge that a good way to make a positive first impression when you meet someone is to begin with a solid handshake. The American Psychological Association has published a paper indicating that “a firm handshake may provide an effective initial form of self-promotion for women”

This has always been a tough one for me. Despite living in 21st Century multi-cultural London, most people still don’t seem to have clocked on that many Muslim women do not like to shake hands. Our faith prohibits unnecessary physical contact with men who are not mahram (or allowed) for us, such as our husband or close members of our family. As such, those of us raised in traditional or fairly conservative Muslim families will have had limited or no physical contact with men outside of our families.

Then you start looking for your first job. Interviews invariably begin with handshakes and not to reciprocate the offer of an extended hand seems like a good way to make sure you don’t get the job. Then you begin work and the continual rounds of meeting and greeting new people, both colleagues and clients means that the problem of the handshake comes up again and again.

I have to admit, coming from a conservative Asian family meant that shaking hands, making eye-contact and speaking assertively have always been problematic for me. We speak deferentially to our elders (through both habit and on pain of a smack with a slipper) and prolonged eye-contact with people outside of your family or peer group is considered either trashy (i.e. you are giving someone the come-on) or aggressive (because you are failing to show respect). Over time, I realised I needed to get over these hang-ups because in Western society it’s a given that if you don’t look someone in the eye when dealing with them, you must be a very shifty character.

I overcame this because one of my A’ level teachers realised that out of his class of 16 students, not one made prolonged eye-contact with him (every student in that class was Asian and female, though not all Muslim). He questioned this and we explained all of the above. He taught us that if we need to look someone in the eye and cannot bring ourselves to do so, then we should look at their nose – no-one can tell the difference (he also suggested that if we feel nervous, we should imagine the other person naked, but I might not take him up on that suggestion).

I have to admit at first, when I overcame these inhibitions and grew in confidence, I didn’t think about the implications of shaking hands on my faith and just went ahead without qualm. But as time went on, I started to question and feel very uncomfortable with this practise (salaah (our daily prayer) is a serious inhibitor of doing what you shouldn’t be).

At first, I looked for excuses, such as going to meetings or greeting visitors with my hands full of papers and files, saying hello with a big smile, a “follow me” and then whizzing off before they could think to volunteer their hand.

As time went on, I found my self saying, “Sorry, I don’t shake hands” (I’m English - we apologise for everything), this has led to a lot of people looking embarrassed or confused, but In suppose if you are open to their questions and polite, it can be a form of dawah too – and another sister might be spared this problem.

Over time though, as my work situation has changed and my confidence has waned, I have found that sometimes I lapse and then beat myself up over it. My best friend told me about a colleague she met from another branch of the organisation and her example has been of help to me. This very smart middle-aged lady on being approached with a handshake always smiles and says, “I’m afraid I don’t shake hands, but it is lovely to meet you” – how can anyone be offended by that?

A lot of sisters will look at this as a non-issue, perhaps especially those who avoid the world of work particularly because of these kinds of issues of mixing and contact. But some of us have to work, and some of us even choose to. This being the case we have to deal with these kinds of matters, and the hope is that we make things easier for the sister’s that follow us. In my last two or three job interviews I noticed that the panel did not offer to shake hands at all, which is also a step in the right direction.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem for sisters. My husband’s previous job for a wholesaler meant that he often met sales representatives. Once he was approached by a man and woman, he shook the male rep’s hand, but declined to shake hands with the woman. She asked why, and he explained that the only woman he will touch is his wife. Rather than take offence, she was moved by his devotion mash’Allah.

So for any non-Muslim readers, please try to be understanding, it’s not you personally (well in most cases anyway), it is the guidance of our faith.

For Muslim brothers and sisters – how do you deal with this issue?

"It is better for you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is to permissible to you." ~ At-Tabarani in Al Kabir No. 486]

Any of the believing women who accepted the conditions of the verse and agreed to live by them were considered to have offered themselves for giving their oaths of allegiance. When they declared their committment to do so, the prophet, peace be upon him, would say to them, "You may go. I have confirmed your allegiance."
I swear by Allah, the prophet's hand never touched the hand of a woman. He would receive their oath of allegiance by spoken declaration. I swear by Allah, the prophet, peace be upon him, never took any vow from women except what Allah had ordered him to take and his palm never touched the palm of a woman. When he had taken their pledge, he would tell them he had taken their oath from them orally. ~Sahih Al Muslim Book on Government, No. 4602)

Monday 25 May 2009

It's a Yes!

After spending the weeks shopping and putting together gifts in anticipation, we finally got round to formally asking for a very lovely young woman’s hand for our brother.

There followed a lovely meal, a ring, some talk about dates and lots of hugs. So the prep begins and the dates vary between June to October so some more sitting down together will be required.

The pashmina's were the easy bit

All of these just adored these shoes and clutch:

We went to every shop in the vixinity, before we finally gave up, found a shop at the top of my mum's road and picked out these suits:

The finished, packaged gifts:

Our little mithai (Indian Sweet) factory (It was all we could do to keep ourselves from stuffing these into our mouths):

Book Review: Liza Dalby – The Tale of Murasaki

This book has been sitting in my stash of books that I pick up cheaply through summer (from the boot markets) and then read whenever I am in need of some distraction. Seeing as I have moved from the office that had a library next door and also because my husband is heartily sick of paying my never-ending library fines, I thought I had best resort to the stash for a while.

After having read Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and Mineko Iwasaki’s Geisha of Gion, I wasn’t expecting anything too different (hence why it has sat on the pile for so long). In fact this book was not at all about Geisha’s or their customs, although there was still plenty about kimono’s.

The book is an account of the life of Murasaki Shikubi, the eleventh century court lady and writer of one of Japan’s greatest literary works – The Tale of Genji. Dalby uses Murasaki’s diary and poetry and other work from the time as we follow Murasaki from her childhood, through her years as a literary spinster and her comparatively late marriage at the age of 25. We see her achieve fame and position as her stories of Genji, the “Shining Prince” become increasingly popular and she becomes a lady of the royal court. Dalby also describes her pain at leaving her child and the melancholy that plagues her throughout her life.

The book starts off feeling fairly traditional with an outline of Murasaki’s childhood and upbringing, the loss of her mother and her forays into bookishness. Beyond this though we find what makes this book so unique. I was astonished at the level of research and painstaking detail which went into this book. The detail in which the great houses, stunning gardens, ceremonies and court life of eleventh century Japan are described is amazing.

Iwasaki’s “Geisha of Gion” describes at length the importance, value and art of kimono. This book reinforces the value that these garments have for the Japanese. Murasaki describes in detail the different types of Kimono, the way they are layered, the way colour schemes are inspired by seasons and the subtle line between elegance and tackiness.

She also goes into details about the various arts that noble or courtly ladies specialised in: perfume making, painting, special family recipes, religious ceremonies and poetry. In fact the book includes many of the original short poems or Waka (precursors to the modern Haiku) written by Murasaki in the eleventh century.

Despite the beautiful and detailed descriptions and the insight into court life and the life of women in medieval Japan, the book can get bogged down at times. Murasaki is very analytical of others but also very critical of herself. Early in her life the writer falls into a depression of sorts which plagues her throughout her adult life.

This book also feels a little too long. At some point after Murasaki enters court life, nothing much further happens, so we are regaled with details of life in the royal palaces, minor scheming and gossip and mainly Murasaki’s gloom. I also found the ending abrupt. I knew what was coming, but after all the sadness and the minutiae of everyday life, we suddenly find the book at its conclusion. After the Tale of Murasaki, we find at the end of the book a translation one of the famous Tales of Genji. But to be honest, by this point, despite having enjoyed learning about Japanese culture, I was too bored to carry on.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Bringing It All Together

Saturday morning I collected some supplies I needed and headed to my mum's to confer with my sisters:

Can you guess what we've been up to?

Friday 22 May 2009

Teaching the Quran with Love

After missing a lot of lessons and then returning to the sporadically, this week has been about getting down to business again with teaching Little Lady to read Quran.

This was something I always ran away from as a child, seeing it as a chore and very boring. Although my dad taught me at home and never hit me, I still hated it. With this in mind, I wanted to make learning Quran a pleasure for Little Lady, something to be proud of and a goal to aspire to. Somewhere along the line, we took a wrong turn, with me scolding and LL stalling at every turn. Both of us ended up frustrated and reluctant.

Yesterday I tried to do things differently. I asked Little Lady to take her time and when she made a mistake and got upset, I reminded her that it was okay and greatness is not in never making a mistake, but in trying again and not giving up until you get it right. This took some of the pressure off her and I found that the more relaxed she was, the fewer mistakes she made. I also sat with my arm around her for the whole lesson and she basked in the attention and affection and didn’t want the lesson to end. I offered her the opportunity to end the lesson at various points, which usually results in her racing off, but she was keen to continue for a few more pages Alhamdulillah.

I think it helped too that I allowed her to miss a few (repetitive) lessons with the agreement that we would cover these tomorrow and also allow her to choose where she wanted to end. I thought this would mean that the lesson would be cut short, but to my surprise she actually read through more than I would have asked her to for that lesson.

At the same time, my dad has also found that reward works better than punishment. He teaches Quran at the local mosque and when we siblings were at school, we were always getting complaints from kids saying “your dad smacked me round the head us”, “your dad told me off” etc. Now he has in place a system of rewards: stickers, certificates and gifts that has meant that his class is the first at the mosque to “graduate” at the end of the year. Yesterday he was laughing that he was giving 10 pence to each child for each surah (section of the Quran) they memorise and they were all trying to remember two at a time.

I suppose if a little bit of kindness goes along way for us, it would go even further for our impressionable children.

Aside from that I am looking for resources to support my lessons with Salihah and perhaps learn to speak Arabic as well. If anyone has come across anything they find particularly useful please do share.

30 or 40 Days to Change a Habit?

I came across in interesting concept in this article on Steve Pavlina’s excellent website. Its basic premise is that sometimes when we make an intention to change something in our life or get rid of a bad habit, we find the thought of the long trek ahead towards that change becoming concrete daunting. Pavlina’s idea is that we don’t say “I will never smoke/swear/eat junk again” as this feels too difficult, but to abstain from the habit or to execute the new one only for 30 days. He argues that the idea that “I will not smoke/swear/eat junk for the next 30 days and then go back to what I did before if I want to” is much more manageable. The added bonus is that if we have abstained/acted on our intention for 30 days, chances are that we will stick to our original habit. Another benefit he mentions is that it gives us the opportunity to experiment, so we might make the change and realise that it didn’t benefit us – for instance with turning vegetarian or trying out a new hobby.

I thought I would give this a go with something I have always found challenging – sugar. I am finding myself not drinking enough water and drinking coke with every meal instead. So just for the next 30 days I will drink no coke and drink water instead. One thing I know about coke is that although it is very mildly addictive because it seems to make you more thirsty instead of quenching your thirst, if you don’t drink it for a while, you lose your inclination towards it completely (Long-Suffering Sister and my Cousin A haven’t drunk fizzy drinks in years).

I was discussing this with my husband when we went for a walk last night (him listening and me panting hard from trying to walk fast and talk very fast and non-stop at the some time) and he liked the idea, except he mentioned one thing which I thought was interesting.

He says in Islam the indication is that it takes 40 days to change a habit, not 30. Some examples of this that I found were:

And remember We appointed forty nights for Moses, and in his absence ye took the calf (for worship), and ye did grievous wrong ~ Al-Quran (2:51)

The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Whoever drinks alcohol and gets drunk, his prayer will not be accepted for forty days and if he dies he will go to Hell. But if he repents, Allaah will accept his repentance. ~ Ibn Maajah (3377).

"The creation of everyone of you starts with the process of collecting the material for his body within forty days and forty nights in the womb of his mother. Then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period (40 days) and then he becomes like a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then an angel is sent to him (by Allah) and the angel is allowed (ordered) to write four things; his livelihood, his (date of) death, his deeds, and whether he will be a wretched one or a blessed one (in the Hereafter) and then the soul is breathed into him.” ~ Bukhari (93:546)

There is also a curious link here that indicates the significance of the period of 40 days in the lives of some of the Prophets (AS).

Okay, so maybe 40 days without cola then.
What would you try to abstain for from 40 days?

Thursday 21 May 2009

In Celebration of Aunty R

I was walking down the road (very original beginning, I know) when I saw a familiar little figure – Aunty R!! Of course I dodged through traffic and ran down the road after her. In her usual way she greeted me with hugs, praise and chatter and I invited her to join our guests for dinner that day (especially knowing it would annoy the heck out of everyone in my family).

I met Aunty R when an old family friend told us that his friend’s mother was visiting from America and needed to lodge with a family while she was here. We had the room spare so we agreed and were introduced to a beautiful, very dignified, middle-aged woman.

This was just two weeks after Little Man was born and the better half had to travel to the north of the country for a few weeks. I wondered how I would manage without him, but of course, for every difficulty Allah (SWT) sends a solution. In this case the solution was Aunty R. Aunty R is not your typical aged middle-aged desi aunty. Although I was a little intimidated at first by her well-dressed, polished and rather posh (to be honest) demeanour, it wasn’t long before I found her to be vivacious, sociable, mischievous and very irreverent. My grandmother was living with me at this time, and the two women got on like a house on fire with Aunty R announcing my gran was a replacement for the mother she lost as a child and my gran taking pot-shots at her behaviour. The two read Quran together both correcting each others pronounciation and mistakes with further mis-pronounciations and mistakes of their own.

Aunty R was one of these eccentric ladies who grow up rather well off and marry into wealth only to find themselves in difficult circumstances later in life. Imagine the eccentric old English aunt in her mansion which has gone to seed – then imagine the Pakistani version.

She could not cook, get her laundry done properly or fill out a form correctly, so in exchange for me doing these things, she taught me to set out a tray, turn leftovers into a gourmet meal (I have never met anyone who could cheat at cooking so much), take something you would throw away and re-create it into something that would impress guests visiting for tea or take a gift and make two out of it (she once had a big perfume set, she removed the perfume and replaced it with a candle from my front-room and gave the set to one friend and the perfume in a chiffon pouch to another). Did I mention she was amazing at taking a messy room and setting the furniture out again so that it looks wonderful?

The best thing though was her naughty sense of humour; making fun of her relatives, doing impressions of my neighbours and taking pot-shots back at my gran under her breath. She also had an endless supply of stories about Bollywood and Pakistan’s equivalent Lollywood (no I am not joking) that kept me enthralled, including the one about visiting a studio and watching Rekha put her leg on a make-up mans shoulder and getting painted white with a paintbrush and foundation. So you can imagine I didn’t miss my husband as much as I should have whilst he was away.

The only problem was that she was very cheeky, fairly liberal (not in a western way, but by Pakistani standards) and had a honey-coated tongue which flattered everyone and the one thing that get’s my husband’s back up is flattery. Couple this with the fact that we are a fairly conservative family and my parents, in-laws and husband all took a decided dislike to her. So it wasn’t long before excuses were made and Aunty R had to find somewhere else to stay.

That didn’t mean that we couldn’t still be friends and of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t invite her back to cause mayhem every now and again…I don’t think my mother-in-law was very impressed that evening!!!

Monday 18 May 2009

Oh Dear…

There are some good things about having a trainee teacher for a sister (Fashionista Sister), she gets to practice her lessons on the kids and they benefit from the methods she is learning about. On the other hand she also gets to practice things like her dodgy face-painting on them…(although I do think the moustache suits Gorgeous).

Selfish But Happy?

One of the things me and my best friend have been talking a lot about recently has been our attempts to please others and the disabling effect this can have on us.

I realised when I was in my late teens, that getting over that desperate childhood craving for the approval of my parents in everything I did was actually every liberating. I am convinced that this craving is ingrained extra strongly in Asians/Desi’s so that you might know what you want, you might be good at what you do and you might be old enough to know better, but unless you are the doctor or lawyer your parents wanted you to be , you have failed in life. Getting beyond this thinking got me onto the path of thinking about what I want to do with my life, what would fulfil me and thinking about what my purpose here is.

A little further down that road, I became more conscious of the role of faith in my life. I was wearing hijab and praying at this time, but began to feel that this alone was not enough. I was lucky I had some good people around me at this time and that my husband was looking deeper into gaining knowledge and making dawah at this point alhamdulillah. One step I took was starting to wear the abaya. For this I really had to come to the point that I did not care what anyone would think about the way I look and that my only consideration was that Allah (SWT) should be pleased with me. Again this was a big liberating experience for me. I didn’t care what I weighed anymore, if it made me look fat, if it was trendy or not, if others were better-dressed and better looking than me or not. This attitude has stayed with me and meant that I have a very positive body-image and better confidence than I did when I was worrying about matching my hipster trousers to the right skinny-fit top.

At the same time I took muhkraj classes to correct my pronunciation of Quranic Arabic. As with the abaya there was some objection, mainly from my parents this time who were worried that I was being secretly brainwashed by Wahabbi’s. I had to tell myself that pleasing Allah and reading his Book correctly mattered and that my parents would have to get over it (of course, they did).

Now I am at that crossroads again. I have always basked in the approval of my in-laws who treat me as the favoured daughter of the house. My opinion is respected and sought and my choices praised. But my in-laws are a very black-and-white kind of family. It’s perfect or it’s no good. So recently when I annoyed the group that are currently staying with me (don’t ask me how, I manage this about once every two or three months) I felt the withdrawal of approval and a subtle collective cold-shouldering (don’t you wish you had a desi extended family too?). My first reaction was to be upset and indignant. My second was to think – I can change my behaviour and attitudes, but I cannot force change in others. My third was to think, I don’t have to care about this. So I carried on as normal, with the additional factor of keeping very busy so as not to look like I am ignoring people and sure enough, the cold-shoulder melted away very quickly and everyone was sheepishly talking to each other again (I think the chocolate cupcakes helped too).

Trying not to care what others think too much has been a battle for me since childhood and I think I am finally starting to master it - it's put me in a strange place because I don't care what my parents or in-laws or "people" think (although what my husband thinks means the world to me - but that's my choice) and that means I don't care about power, ambition or prestige anymore only about doing what feels right, what I enjoy and what I want. It's left me re-evaluating what I want in life because promotions and position don't matter anymore but enjoyment and satisfaction do. It definitely means that I have had to re-think what I want from my life career-wise, or even if I want a career at all – which is a thought that I have been resisting up until now (my generation of girls were schooled with the assumption that we will work and that our value lies in our career success, motherhood or doing nothing never figured in this dialogue).

Of course, not caring what others think of you is not the same as not caring about or ignoring people and their needs, but more about setting your own agenda and taking your cues for approval or satisfaction internally from your own standards and feelings and not from other people's judgements and opinions.

My husband once told me that a sign of iman (faith) is to care only about what Allah (SWT) wants. If we are fearful of the world everything in it will intimidate us, if we are in awe only of Allah, then the whole world will stand in awe of us. An amazing and thoroughly liberating thought.

Book Review: Sue Palmer – Toxic Childhood

When we imagine how we are going to raise our children, we think of healthy, happy, well-behaved children, which of course do not exhibit any of the bad behaviour and habits every other child seems to be prone to. In reality the endeavour of bringing up our children is a lot more complicated. The pace of modern life, diet, technology, suitable play, safety, education – every single one of these is fraught with potential dangers, highlighted by the reams of research published every year (“mobile phones stunt development” ,“additives cause illnesses and allergies”, “working mothers have delinquent children”, “childhood obesity epidemic” ad infinitum).

To be parents now is a very anxiety-inducing business, which is why books like this can be useful. Sue Palmer found that more and more specialists were focussing on one area and not linking it to other areas, so one thought TV was causing children to become violent, whereas another was suggesting that additives in food were linked to ADHD type behaviours. She spent three years developing an overview of all of the research she could find and presented her conclusions in this book.

This is exactly what I loved about this book, it takes a holistic approach to the problems that parent’s and children face today. Broken down by chapters into food, play, sleeping patterns, family dynamics, education and technology it nevertheless cross-references the various problems and shows where they exacerbate each other. Each chapter presents the issues and research from around the world and then provides practical solutions that parents can take alone and collectively.

As a parent I found this book invaluable, especially in helping to convince family why some things are so detrimental (poor sleep patterns, food with colourings etc). I think if you have children, if you are a teacher, if you work with children or are just interested in the welfare of the next generation this is a must-read.

Sunday 17 May 2009

Colour Experimentation

Due to the grotty rainy weather (my favourite to stay in bed), and because Little Lady escaped to her nan's, leaving the house full but very quiet, I decided to stay in and play with my card-making stuff.

I picked an embellishment or centre-peice for the focal-point of each card and then brought out my papers to see what worked with it.

Friday 15 May 2009

Holden Point – Visit to Olympic Site

Because some of our work relates to the Olympics, our team was taken to Holden Point to view the Olympic Site. I visited this site a year ago and it is clear the work is moving along. It's hard to tell from these pictures but right in the missdle of this picture is the new Stratford International Station which will extend the Eurostar further east. This used to be contaminated industrial wasteland with warehouses in some parts. My husband is a removal man and was called in by a few of the companies owning these to move out stock before they were demolished. Local animal sanctuaries were brought in to take away stray animals and wildlife and scientists were brought in to "wash" the soil. These were followed by archeologists to excavate the area.

This is a big opportunity for a long-neglected and run-down area, the tour-guide told us that she lived in the area and she has been fed up for years, but now she finally has hope that things are looking up.

We were finished by 2.30 and my managers kindly let me go (I think it was a bit obvious that I was chomping at the bit to get out of having to go back to work). Stratford has an indoor market and shopping center and as it was payday and Jummah as well, I thought I would bring home some sweets and fruit. As usual, I bought more than I could carry and my arms are now feeling it.

I thought I'd put together something healthy for the kids and they quite liked the idea. I'd love to find a set of little matching plastic bowls and a pretty tray for this and maybe chop different things up after lunch so they could nibble on them as they played.

Of course my efforts were sabotaged when they spotted the rest of what I had bought:

In the end I relented and let them have some donuts once they finished the fruit (as it goes brown first). Of couse the little girl next door got her share too courtesy of Little Man. The strawberies are for after dinner, if I open them now I will have riot on my hands as Little Man is obsessed (have you ever seen a kid grab and eat with both hands). The Aero's are for me and the rest is to share over the weekend.

(Umm Nassim I'll be thinking of you when I eat the chocolate). Jummah Mubarak everyone.

Prayer Morning

My mom has had a little something on her mind for a long time, so decided to give her friends and neighbours a shout to assist. Because we live amongst a big Muslim community here, whenever there is a problem, the ladies tend to get together. So yesterday she called a group together to pray and make dua. Me and Long-Suffering Sister took the day off from work and we all spent the morning reading Surah Yasin from the Quran.

Whilst they finished off praying, me and LSS prepared a little something to refresh the ladies:

My mum’s little sister made a beautiful dua at the end praying for those who have left us, for us to become sadaqah jariyah (ongoing charity) for our parents and for our children to be the same for us. She prayed that our children become the coolness of our eyes and that Allah (SWT) uses them for his will and accepts their Islam. She prayed for all of the Muslim’s around the world suffering right now. Everyone had tears in their eyes. Punjabi can be a coarse and bawdy language in the mouths of some, but my aunty made it sound very sweet and innocent with her words.

Of course this was followed by a slap-up meal consisting of my mum’s gorgeous cooking – after all the ladies had been praying continuously and silently for over two hours. This is my plate – you can tell how greedy I am.

Of course at the end of that there were the piles of washing – as usual LSS stepped up to the plate.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Small Kindnesses

As Muslim’s we often talk about good deeds and the small things we can do to make a difference and that also act as dawah.

It’s nice though when someone also does this for us. I was reminded today when I had a nasty coughing fit that ten minutes later was still going strong ( I should have gone for a walk and coughed somewhere else, but have been hacking away for the last few days, so just gave up and sat there).

One of my new colleagues who I haven’t really gotten to know brought over a mug of hot water and a box of herbal teas and urged me to choose one. I was a bit embarrassed, but rather moved at her very sweet gesture.

Then on the way home today, I got on the bus only to realise I had forgotten to put money on my pass that morning and was stranded in the middle of no-where with no cash, no shops and no cash machine. Luckily the bus driver was Muslim and quietly waved me on so that I get off near civilisation and put money on my pass.

Sometimes all it does take is a very small act – a smile, an offer of tea or coffee, stopping for a moment to ask how someone is, a small compliment.

One of my dearest colleagues has just returned from nursing her seriously ill mother and mentioned that she hadn’t laughed in a long time. I realised after I had been ill for months and my sisters made me laugh myself silly, how medicinal laughter is. So I think I will be taking her for a walk and a good laugh tomorrow. What small gesture will you make today?

"(Each one) of you should save himself from the fire by giving even half of a date (in charity). And if you do not find a half date, then (by saying) a pleasant word (to your brethren)." ~ Bukhari (2:394)

“Your smile for your brother is Sadaqah. Your removal of stones, thorns or bones from the paths of people is Sadaqah. Your guidance of a person who is lost is Sadaqah” ~ Bukhari

Queries To My Office (Asking the Mayor for Assistance)

Stupid Enquiries:
Can you fix my washing machine?
The price of rice has shot up, what do I do?
When will all the schools in the borough be converted to Islamic schools?
How come Muslims are allowed to march [to celebrate Mawlid] and not Christians?
I am my girlfriend are moving to the area, is it rough? (not much!!)
Our dog called Satan has been kidnapped by the borough and is being held hostage.
I went to the Job Centre, I wasn`t helped getting a job, instead I was given ¿Cha¿ of dislike (those were this persons exact words).
All those people who think they deserve free housing because their parents had it and can’t see why it’s taking so long for them to be offered a place (when there are over 20,000 people on the waiting list).
The various (usually) gentleman who complain about their children’s schools, only for us to investigate and find that they have been banned from the school due to their abusive behaviour towards teachers.

Not-So-Stupid Enquiries:
I was trafficked and held captive for two years, I am now homeless – where do I go with my child?
My child is too scared of his teacher to go to school but will lose his school place if he doesn’t go back tomorrow – what do I do, the school will not speak to me?
I live with my children but my daughter-in-law is bullying me, can the council help me find somewhere to go?
My mother is suffering from terminal cancer, we have been waiting for a property for seven years. Please can we be allocated a permanent home so that she can die in peace as she does not have much time left.
My husband was abusive and refused to provide for me and my child, I am not in this country legally, where do I go? (In this case, this person went to a Family Assessment Centre with her baby and was told by the monstrosity at the counter that she would call the Police and get her deported. In the end one of our Muslimah Councillor’s was kind enough to give her cash from her pocket for food and nappies and take up her case).
Beloved Allah (SWT), bestow sense on those who stupidly waste our time and have mercy on those suffering alone right now.

Book Review: Sam Bourne – The Righteous Men

After various deep wordy books (The Olive Reader, The Tale of Murasaki) and the action-packed intense (Old Kingdom Trilogy by Garth Nix), I thought I might have a read of something a little easier on the brain.

This is not to denigrate these types of books (I love pulp horror and we all need an easy read sometimes). This is the kind of supermarket shelf/airport shop read that we sometimes end up with and indeed I did see it for £1 at my local supermarket and thought it looked interesting.

The Righteous Men is a conspiracy theory type thriller. The main character is Will Monroe, a young Englishman working for the New York Times who accidentally uncovers a string of killings across the country which inexplicably seem to be linked. Before he can investigate any link between the two he discovers that his wife has been kidnapped and he is told to stop digging any further.

His search for his wife leads him to the Hassidic Jewish community in Crown Heights New York. The book does provide us with lots of interesting detail and information about the ways Hassidic Jews live, their beliefs and their rituals as will as some insight into why these are welcomed and treasured by some (Sandy, the young convert) but a struggle for others. The protagonist’s initial reaction to the Hassidic community felt strongly prejudiced and I wondered at first if the book was anti-Semitic or whether the author would help to resolve this by denuding Will of his ignorance. The latter of course, or I doubt any publisher would have touched it.

The obvious comparison for this book is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code - both have religious conspiracies and codes to break, but whereas by the end of Dan brown’s book I was fed up by the annoying cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter and too-neat ending, I found this book a little better written and researched and perhaps just a shade more original. This is the first book I have read which involves Hassidic Judaism and Kabala, whereas I have come across numerous that mention the Holy Grail, Knights Templar and secret societies (think Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth for a better-written much more grown up take on the The Da Vinci Code theme).

Having said the above I still found the book predictable – you kind of know that the Hassidim couldn’t possibly be the bad guys, you just know that the hilariously-named NYT editor Townsend McDougal and the old has-been hack Terry Walton are involved somehow. I have to admit it I also found Will Munroe slightly irritating and not quite distraught enough at his wife’s disappearance and for me liking the protagonist of a story is a must, otherwise why should you care what happens next and why then should you carry reading. Also I found all the codes and clues a little bit silly – the characters suddenly “got” them at some point a lot of the time in contrast to logically working them out.

The saving grace of the book came for me in two things – the descriptions of the Hassidic community and at the end, I actually didn’t see the bad guys coming. Bourne does manage to keep you guessing about the true identity of the villains until the end which I suppose was a good enough reason for me to read the book to the end.

Monday 11 May 2009

Small Treats

You know when you have a busy day and you should just stick to what you are doing? I knew I had guests coming, I knew I had shopping and cooking to do, plus I woke up late. So when hubby asked if I fancied leaving the kids with their gran and visiting a boot, I just couldn't say no, especially after all that sickness meant that I didn't feel like going out for ages.

I ended up in Dunton (I swear there are more dogs than people ate that market!) and didn't buy a single useful or sensible thing. I did manage to find a few things that I enjoy though, which counts just as much I suppose.

These books came to about £1.80. I like both Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, the others I will probably give away or sell on (they were 20p each), I love anything tht has to do with the surreal, unexplained or occult (a left-over from a teenage curiosity that made me read the entire occult section of the library and left me rather skeptical - my dad would have gone nuts if he found those books).

The craft goodies came to about £5, which is a fraction of the shop cost. Sod's Law being what it was, I bought a paper-trimmer/guillotine for £15 after looking for a cheap one and not finding it, I then found this one, which is a costlier brand for 50p - typical.

The stickers on the trimmer are PaperMate which is a popular brand, but pricey. The stamps I decided to give a try because stamping is the big thing in the card-making world right now and I wanted to try. The lady selling them showed me some ways to use them and promised to give me a mini-tutorial if I went back next week (very sweet). She was clearing out her craft room and sold me flowers, packs of papers, packs of brads, sticker and peel-off sheets and packs of ribbon-stickers which will keep me busy for ages.

Now all I have to do is make some time to play with them...maybe if I wait till everyone is sleeping and then get out of bed again...

Little Lady's Green Fingers

Because I was so busy on Sunday with cooking for guests, I bossed the boys into having a nap (i.e. lie down and don't you dare get up!). When both the boys are sleeping, this usually means that Little Lady get's to do something that the boys disrupt her with - play with her bead box, her tea set, or in this case, a chance to grow something.

I gave her direction and a packet of flower seeds sitting in the cupboard. With the assistance of Little-Madam-next-door she managed to weed the pot of soil and break up the soil (we have been mending that fence since LL was three and these two have been breaking it again every time).

Of course, the minute I went back in the kitchen, they went crazy watering the pot. I don't know what it is about children and water and especially my children and drowning plants, but there seems to be a magnetic attraction between these elements (especially if you have told them not to get their clothes wet).

(She was very cross at me for taking this picture - I just love annoying them back).

Kitchen Trouble

One of the things I like about my husband’s job is some of the surprises he brings us home from his job. I still tease him that he will never ever be a rich man, but in reality I don’t mind because the odd assortment of things he brings home is still a treat. The other day he turned up with 12 packets each of Achar Ghost (tangy lamb) masala and Bombay Biryani masala.

Of course, I immediately decided to treat everyone to a yummy biryani and threw myself into washing, chopping and stirring. I ended up with a humungous pot of gooey rice that stuck together (that’s actually a crime in a desi kitchen) and wasn’t very spicey with potatoes that were rock hard and the toughest chicken ever.

Not to be deterred, I tried Chinese egg fried rice with vegetables and chicken. After some adjustments (throwing chilli and garam masala in the stir fry) I got another batch of sticky rice. Everyone looked at it aghast, so I tried to eat the whole (big) pot myself to prove a point (don’t ask me which one) – It was actually very tasty. In the end my sweetie-pie of a husband took pity and said he would have some for his dinner too. I will be trying this again because it was so tasty, I just have to get the rice right.

Things didn’t get any better the next day when I tried to prevent people chopping more chilli’s into my food by spicing it up myself. The result was mixed veg and potato curry that had everyone huffing and puffing and grabbing the yoghurt.

Then on Sunday we were expecting guests for dinner. By this time I was fed-up of spending so much time in the kitchen and of the sight of my own food. So I put together the traditional guest menu of pilau rice, boneless chicken curry with potatoes, lamb kebabs with mint and chilli chutney, jelly and fruit salad. I made just enough so that if it was no good it wouldn't sit in the fridge all week. Of course because I made so little, it came out absolutely perfect. Everyone enjoyed the food, and the rice was the best I have ever made.

I would take a picture, but there was none left at all. I had to scrape the left-overs from the various babies into a box for my lunch the next day. Next time I'll try a double portion of the same recipe and the whole thing will turn out terrible. Not that I am about to give up, I'm trying the Chinese rice again this week as the kids like it, it has a bit of everything and it's perfect for taking to work the next day. I think I might start working through the Delia Smith books I have on my shelf insh'Allah. Oh and Sis Rainbow is good for inspiration.

Book Review: Isabelle Allende - Ines of My Soul.

Having previously borrowed Isabel Allende’s Zorro from Long-Suffering Sister (review here), I couldn’t wait for her to lend me this book from the same author (which I bought her last year for Eid).

Ines of My Soul is the story of Ines Suarez, one of the founders of Chile told in her own words. The story opens with Ines as an old women telling the story of her life to her stepdaughter, beginning as the daughter of a poor family in Spain and taking us through her first marriage to a handsome good-for-nothing, her resourcefulness in the face periods of poverty and her eventual journey to South America on the pretext of finding her husband, but really in search of a new life. We follow her as she lands in Peru, finds herself a protector and lover and then follows him to the last undiscovered portion of South America – Chile. The small group of settlers face hostile natives, severe drought, isolation, starvation and illness.

The novel is an interesting take on the conquest of South America by the Spanish, but what I really liked is the feisty, humane voice Allende gives to Ines. The Spanish are the great conquistadors, but the natives are not invisible or savages, even though the Spanish see them as such. Allende shows the way they are mistreated and abused, the way entire, villages and populations are pillaged as if their inhabitants lives are worth less than nothing – the men a threat to be removed and the women chattel to be raped and traded.

She also highlights the absolute powerlessness of women, whether Spanish or Indian, both in law and because of social norms and conventions. This is one of the things I liked about the book, the heroine is a really intelligent, brave, resourceful, hard-working and feisty creation, characteristics I just loved. Ines makes her way in what is definitely a man’s world and a cruel and dangerous one at that.

Many of the themes I found in Zorro, I found here – the devastation of the native population, the cruelty and arrogance of the Spanish conquerors with their complete assurance that their faith and culture is entirely superior and must be forcefully imposed on the natives for their own benefit. Again there is the long journey from Spain to the New World and all of the promises of riches and land that it holds, the concept of the hidalgo – the Spanish nobleman sworn to King and Country and high ideals.

My only gripe might be the same one that LSS picked up, that the book does end slightly abruptly, before you expect it to. Also, some of the scenes described (various tortures, murders and punishments) might be a little graphic for those who have a weak stomach (wimps!!). Overall though this has been a book I have been looking forward to and which I really enjoyed reading, although between the two books, I like Zorro more.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Playing with Colour - May Cards

I thought it would be nice to make a change from Eid cards for some variety, so had a go at these.

The patterned green paper used in the background of this card is from a brochure. I've saved all sorts of bits of nice paper from catalogues, brochures and packaging which I am working with at the moment. Not only are they free (papers bought from the stores for this purpose are extortionately priced), but they are also unique and the patterns and textures can give you inspiration for the whole card. They aso tend to be good think quality.

This is a simple design using one of the packs of papers I bought with the gift vouchers I was given at work. It's nice to have an assortment of coloured paper to play about with. I managed to cut the sides of this blue piece of paper with the special blade on my new guillotine before I broke it. I'll try taking it back today and see if I can pick up some nice bits in it's place.

Me and Little Lady had fun picking the colours for the background in this card and the one below.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Book Review: Christina Aziz - The Olive Readers

The title of this book looked very familiar, but I could not recall from where, so when I saw a copy for £1 at market, I decided to give it a try.

Having just finished the action-packed Sabriel triology by Garth Nix, I fancied something a little bit more thoughtful.

The Olive Readers is set in in a future which is radically different from today. Large business corporations have taken over the governments of the world and eradicated previous languages, history, maps and culture. The only language spoken is “Federalese” and commissioners are placed in every town and village to ensure that the corporations are obeyed completely. No-one knows which race they belong to or where they originate from. Whole groups of people are moved from place to place so that it is impossible to put down roots. Books are banned entirely. Through the course of the book we come to realise that global warming has already happened, millions have suffered and died and the earth became uninhabitable. This is until the coming of a mysterious and charismatic young women called Maya who teaches people about respecting the earth and taking only what you need. The big corporations take on her teachings at first, but she mysteriously disappears and the corporations take over whole countries with the citizens being reduced to a conditioned workforce.

The book is written in the form of a letter to us from the future. The writer is Jephzat, introduced to us as a gauche young woman from a family of handsome, wealthy , talented scientists who lives in a backwater place known only as the Olive Federation because the area’s sole produce is olives (In contrast to the Water Federation who holds sway over all of the other Federations).

Power-play amongst the Federations leads to war in the Olive Federation and we see the loss of many lives and the mysterious disappearance of Jephzat’s beloved sister. Following this, the Federation move Jephzat’s parents to another city to continue secret research, leaving her behind.

The lonely and vulnerable Jephzat is watched over by various servants and villagers and Homer, one of the olive-pickers who falls in love with her. Homer introducers her to the Readers or more specifically the “Olive Readers” (indicating that there are other branches in other federations). The Readers illegally collect and preserve books hoping to regain lost knowledge and find a way to end the tyranny of the federations.

This book was part post-apocalyptic fiction (a genre I love), part love story, part action novel. Think The Chrysalids by John Wyndham or George Orwell. Another writer she has been compared to is Margaret Atwood and I felt that this comparison was apt when considering the writing style.

The first half of the book is slower and more intense. I found the love story achingly sweet, it haunted me for days afterwards and I kept going back to the parts with the two charachters. There is much exploration of the effects of war on people and the relationship between Jephzat and her sister. The second half of the book felt very different, after the leisurely read of the first half, it suddenly takes off and events seem to get ahead of themselves. I think this is understandable considering that the author says it took her many years to write the first part and two months to write the second part.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book (the first half more than the second half) although I could have killed the Aziz for the plot turn that the love story takes, this is a testament to how deeply it affected me.