Contemplating in The City

Pont Neuf, Paris
Pont Neuf, Paris.

My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom-freedom from violence and falshood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.”

Chekhov’s Letters

In a few hours, British Summertime will officially end. The hour that was lost in spring will mysteriously reappear after the stroke of midnight. The days will get shorter and mornings will begin shrouded in darkness. For the last few weeks, I’ve been waking up an hour earlier than usual, almost as if to try and turn back to claim more time. Telling my body clock that time is just an illusion does little to help the adjustment. My recent early mornings have begun with the sight of a full moon progressively waning each night directly in my line of vision through the slanted attic window. A sign from the Universe to count progress not in months or years but by cycles and phases.

When I reflect on the last few years much of it was spent waiting for a door to open when knocking on doors that were never meant for me became too exhausting. I took a massive leap into the unknown thinking a net would appear to catch my fall. It did, but only in the form of raw materials. I’ve had to learn to weave my own web like a spider to catch opportunities on the rare occasion that they’ve come.

Patience and perseverance deserve their own reward, so I gifted myself by renting a  small monks room for the summer in the sprawling metropolis that is Istanbul. In my last blog post, I felt the call to leave behind my solitary life secluded in nature to come back into the world. Staying true to my word, my summer began immersed in city life and continues now as the seasons change. For three months, Istanbul became my home as past acquaintances became solidified into deep friendships. It was the perfect ground to practice the dance between my spiritual and material life. When I recall Ramadan in May, I remember a whirlwind month spent with dervishes seamlessly navigating from one fraction of their lives to another. I learned to take down the walls that divided different areas of my life as I felt gratitude that I know now what my purpose is even if the road ahead isn’t clear. The secular and religious divides within me began to blend as I felt a weight lifted off me. New friendships from diverse sections of society pushed me out of my comfort zone to reveal parts of myself that I didn’t know existed. I tentatively showed parts of myself that I didn’t dare in other places.

Sulemaniye mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

For years I’ve hidden my intuitive healing abilities. I thought I could channel it into a conventional medical education, yet all my years spent in medical school and dental school did nothing but quash my intuitive abilities under textbook definitions of health and disease. It followed me nonetheless throughout my career that began in the UK and eventually crashed in France. The years that have followed have been heavy with grief. When God gives you a gift and you feel like you have to leave it behind, a deep sense of failure follows your every step. But a true gift never quite goes away, it grows silently waiting for the right time to rebirth itself. Like a growing piece of fruit, it’s best to wait for it to ripen to get the sweetest taste. If you wait too long though, the moment is lost and the fruit gets spoilt. Timing is everything.  Earlier this year, I was given a second chance and I gladly took it. The joy I feel at being reunited with my healer self knows no bounds. It feels like coming home. After nearly two decades of searching, I’ve finally found a healing modality that feels natural and effortless. As a distant healer, my most important job is to maintain high frequencies in a deep state of meditation, in a process that has transformed my life and that of others. I’ve let go of the struggle and fully embraced the unknown areas of unexplained science. I can’t promise miracle cures any more than I can explain the mechanisms of distant healing. But what I can testify to is the joy I’ve witnessed when a person lets go of a weight they’ve been carrying for too long to finally set them free. True healing comes from the empowerment of self- healing, in a gift that keeps on giving. In return, they’ve set me free too by opening up a new world for me now that I’ve let go of the narrow confines of my former profession. To break the rules you have to master them first. But perhaps I’m not really breaking any rules, I just mistook the foundations of my learning as the height of my potential.

It’s not clear which direction my life is heading but I know I have a precious jewel that will serve me and others well, and that it’s only now that I’m able to handle it with love and care. On my weekly hikes up the hill that led up to the Sulemaniye Mosque, I mapped out all the city’s bookshops. Twice in the same week, I came across the story in the Masnavi of the man who hounds Moses (A.S) for gifts he’s not ready to receive. Divine intervention decrees the man be given the gift to hear the language of animals against the wishes of Moses. What begins as a gift turns into a curse as the weight of knowledge is no match for his untrained ego in an abuse of power that eventually leads to his downfall.

To learn the Unseen’s secrets, one is fit,

Only if one can seal one’s lips with it.

Masnavi III, 3388-89

My disappointment at not having succeeded in bridging the gap between conventional medicine and the healing arts has finally begun to dissipate. I’ve come to realise that having knowledge doesn’t mean I have to practice it solely in the way I was conditioned to. Divinely orchestrated meetings with doctors, nurses and therapists have given me a second chance to share and support others to better work with their patients while giving me the satisfaction that I’m still part of the medical community, albeit at the fringes. It’s easy to come out of the closet with strangers but less so with family and friends. A summer of being my authentic self on the streets of Istanbul came to an abrupt end on my return back to the U.K.  An unexpected health crisis of a family member thrust me back into the medical system as I was reminded of the shadow side of modern medicine that measures disease in squares that can be ticked off a sheet. Watching a young child scream in pain after the last of the morphine wears off has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It forced me to admit to my family my true vocation which was almost as painful. I sucked in my breath as each doctor and surgeon passed through the ward, each differing in their diagnosis but all equally dismissive of a patient who was of the opposite gender, much younger and a few shades darker than their caucasian skin.

I felt rage, I felt helpless and then I realised they probably felt it too. Trained professionals taught to heal want to do just that but they’re trapped in a system that’s woefully lagging behind rapidly evolving consciousness. We aren’t taught that food chosen by emotions can negatively impact our organs, that the human body wasn’t designed to live off artificial chemicals or chronically stressful situations, that there is an electromagnetic field around our cells that fires off signals before the cells themselves change. Treating disease purely at a biochemical and cellular level is a dying trade that’s starting to look at bit shaky with its exposed foundations. To say that surgery and pills are the only solution is a gross disservice to all those needlessly suffering at the hands of a system of experts holding all the power. It’s only inevitable that the growing weight of practitioners hiding in the closet will reveal themselves and dare to speak their truth. I long for that day to come, but change takes time. Symptoms of disease are quick to be shot down by medication and surgery before finding the root cause. It’s also incredibly difficult to witness the suffering of another without the skills required to give comfort. But the wheel of fortune is always changing.

I see an invisible central thread moving through the causes of disease, war and the environmental crisis. Passing through the streets of upmarket Istanbul, women in black robes frequenting designer boutiques looked no different from the veiled women standing in a queue outside the Syrian embassy.  Designer handbags in one pair of hands, refugee papers in another. Just as I was once the wealthy professional trying not to notice the growing number of refugee tents along the river Seine near Gare d’Austerlitz on my way to work. As the world slowly moves away from an oil-based economy I wonder where the future fortunes of the world lie when the narrative of the scarcity of resources eventually changes to the harms of monopolisation and overconsumption.

A student once went to his beloved teacher and said, ”Master, I have this bag of nuts, could you distribute it among the students?”

The teacher took the bag and asked, ”Should I distribute them according to God’s laws or according to our human laws?”

”According to God’s laws,” the student answered.

So the teacher took a handful of nuts out of the bag. To some students he gave two nuts, to others five nuts, and yet others ten nuts. The student looked at him in astonishment and the teacher smiled and asked, ”Should I distribute them according to human laws?” 

The student nodded, the nuts were collected, and every student was given the same amount.

Nasruddin folktale

The etymology of ‘crisis‘ denotes a “turning point in the decisive point in the progress of a disease” or ”that change which indicates recovery or death” as described by Hippocrates. With only a few letters separating his name from the word ‘hypocrisy‘, I wait for the tides to turn from the sin of pretending to virtue to genuine Hippocratic healing that chooses harmony over chaos. As a woman, I eagerly await the recognition of the ‘mothers‘ of future medicine to take their equal place on the mantle.

I came full circle this summer by ending it in Paris. Three summers ago, I left the city unable to reconcile the differences within me. I briefly returned earlier this year as the writer I always wanted to be and the medical intuitive I was always meant to be. It’s so much easier to be in the world without masking my true self. While my writing career is still very much in the beginning stages, I take heart in the helping hands that bear gifts as I progress in my creative journey. A book of short stories by Chekhov purchased in a seaside charity shop exactly a year earlier. A signed bookmark a year before that by one of my favourite Kashmiri writers with words of encouragement to keep going. And a poem inscribed at the back of a handpainted frame given on my final birthday celebrated with my Parisian friends,

“Trust in your dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.”

Khalil Gibran

As the world becomes more chaotic, my solace lies in the infinite ability to transform grief and sorrow into freedom and joy, one person at a time. Tomorrow marks the new moon of Diwali, celebrating the inevitability of light after darkness. Fireworks will light the skies all over the world, but perhaps not in the Kashmir Valley. Throughout the joys and sorrows of this summer, I constantly reflected on the dilemma of Prince Arjuna and the counsels of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.

 “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.”

6:32

I’ve come to terms with taking imperfect action over inaction when required. Other times I need to stay silent and take a step back. To learn to keep joy and sorrow both equally in the palm of my hand. Now that I’m back in the world, I’m sure there’ll be ample opportunity to practice. For now, I’m ready to hibernate back into obscurity now that the clouds of ill health casting their shadow on family life have finally parted to reveal a pot of gold at the end of a glorious double-arched rainbow. Health really is wealth. On my wall is a postcard copy of Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Turtle Trainer that followed me everywhere I went this summer. It reminds me to have patience with a world slow to change and heal, but change it will. It took me long enough.

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Being in The World, But Not Of It

 

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The first blush of white blossoms of spring on the pear tree in the garden have come and gone. The same pear tree from my previous post A Tree In Four Seasons has proven resilient in the face of a mysterious infestation, being uprooted and close to death. It will take time for its branches to grow again and provide a sanctuary for the soft-bellied blue tits and house sparrows I so love. The tree bark once covered in spores has now recovered and grown thicker than before. Somehow in the changing seasons, the cycles of destruction and reconstruction have come and gone, moving swiftly to another target in need of help.

It’s the small triumphs of nature that give me hope that human nature can find its way back to vitality against the odds. Regardless of what colour skin we possess, participation in the toughest school in the Universe that is planet Earth in 2019 requires a thick skin and the stomach for a steep learning curve. In a healthy functioning body, the skin is designed to keep out harmful organisms but open enough to release toxins. But in a world overflowing with the rapid release of centuries worth of suppressed emotions, it’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed with the release of so much toxicity.

If I could choose which type of plant I could be, I’d probably choose to be a succulent. With thicker skin perhaps I’d be able to thrive better in harsh conditions, without getting washed away with each wave of polarisation. Though I’ve loved my long spells in nature, it’s left me feeling ill-equipped each time I venture back into society. I spent the New Year in the New Forest, one of Europe’s most ancient woodlands. Accompanied by my Rhodesian Ridgeback canine buddy, I walked for miles many a time without a soul in sight. Where solitude was once a struggle for me, I now struggle with being in the world.

 

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And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” 
And he replied: 
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” 
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East. 

‘Gate of The Year’, Minnie L. Haskins

After a month without much WiFi or phone signal, I was ready to come back into a civilisation that struggles to remain civil. Since walking away three years ago from structural systems that I once depended on, I’ve been left unsure of my place in the world and what my role is. Following my bliss has to be balanced with an ability to navigate my way around society just enough to ensure my needs are met without being pulled into my old ways of life and the thoughts that accompanied them. It’s so easy to get distracted by my fears and doubts sometimes that I forget why I left it all behind in the first place.

Someone said; “There is something I have forgotten.”

Rumi replied; There is one thing in this world that must never be forgotten. If you were to forget all else, but did not forget that, then you would have no reason to worry. But if you performed and remembered everything else, yet forgot that one thing, then you would have done nothing whatsoever.

It is just as if a king sent you to a country to carry out a specific task. If you go and accomplish a hundred other tasks, but do not perform that particular task, then it is as if you performed nothing at all. So, everyone comes into this world for a particular task, and that is their purpose. If they do not perform it, then they will have done nothing.  

Discourse 4, Fihi Ma Fihi

My sense of self-worth has had to learn to disconnect from material wealth and outwardly signs of success.  I’ve had to let go of external validation of my inner knowing, just because it can’t be seen doesn’t mean it’s not real. But I’m only human and each time I evolve to a greater sense of peace, I’m met with the twin experience of my shadows. So it is with the world, as more souls awaken and light up the world with their unique gifts, the more the shadows will come up.

My anxiety that I don’t have thick enough skin is still rooted in seeing my sensitivity as a weakness. It’s the masculine side of me telling me to toughen it out, but then the feminine side of me turns this perceived weakness into a tool of power. It takes a lot of discipline to remind myself to physically move my body when my mind becomes busy, with so many events in the world demanding my attention. My sensitivity has become the fuel for sacred body practices across traditions. By following the daily cycle of the rising and setting of the sun, it’s helped me stay committed to the choices I’ve made and the path I’ve chosen when my shadows make an appearance. Something magical happens when I train my body to move in a certain way following the rhythms of nature. With my head on the ground, my heart is elevated above my mind and back in charge. I know when my masculine energies have become imbalanced with my feminine essence when my womb begins to violently contract and forces me to switch from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ mode.

I’m becoming more attuned to my body working in rhythm with the moon cycle, just as the gravitational pull creates the dance of rising and falling tides. Women take in the energy of the world into their womb whether they know it or not. Ancient feminine wisdom asks us to transform this energy from a space which can hold new life, creating new worlds imagined with blueprints sent out through the energy of the heart.

Each day brings a daily round of insults to our nervous systems with images repeated in our mind’s eye that cannot be erased and flow into our bloodstream and seep into our muscles. Those who are wise and able enough will turn that poison into food to nurture an emerging world. Many others sadly become poisoned and the whole vicious cycle is repeated.  The human hand is designed to grip all that we need to survive, to lend a helping hand, to comfort, to touch and soothe. Freewill also means the hand of the Divine will not stop determined hands from pulling the trigger of a machine designed by men to destroy and create chaos. Joy and grief, all lie in our hands.

These were some of my thoughts as I followed the actions of over a million school children stand for climate change, yet the actions of one man in New Zealand overshadowed all their efforts. As if echoing their voices, Cyclone Idai came out in full force in response to so many collective injustices that are killing our world. The children of tomorrow seem to know this while many of our elders feign deaf and blindness while still expecting sympathy. If we lived in a just world, those committing the crimes would be the ones to feel the force of their actions, but this is exactly the simplistic thinking that keeps our world small. I have to remind myself that ultimately, we all suffer. Empaths and those sensitive enough to hold opposing viewpoints equally feel the pain of the victims and the perpetrators.

A Sufi is not a Sufi until he takes it upon himself the whole of creation as a family charge.

Sheikh Shibli

The shadows of humanity have decided to come out en masse, yet just like the teenagers demanding justice for assaults to the environment, the world is becoming united in collective grief. For all those who have been praying for world peace are starting to see their prayers heard. Peace however cannot come until the pain is witnessed, so that it may be transformed and healed. It would be a disservice for all those who have suffered in silence carrying the wounds of those who came before them, not to have their hurts acknowledged. In an imperfect world, I wonder if the cycle of hurt will ever end.

It sometimes feels like we’re tangled in a messy net of global grief, with all of us at different stages for different reasons. Denial can quickly jump to depression and fired up again into anger before bargaining is exhausted into acceptance. Individual grief adds a separate dimension, but as I recently experienced, personal grief can transform itself in the presence of world events.

 As long as one is completely absorbed in his own grief, arising from the death of a dear one, there is no way of gaining victory over pain or release from the numbing bitterness of loss. He may gradually forget, as most people do, but that is to accept the numbness rather than fully to adjust to reality. If, one can identify in feeling with the experience of others who similarly suffer, he will be freed from his own grief by and in a compassionate oneness with all living beings.

This oneness instrinsically brings an enduring peace and joy that are superior to grief-superior because they spring not from hopelessly trying to evade its causes or stoically steeling the mind to its impact, but through overcoming the evil to oneself by the good of a deep and fully satisfying love for others. 

Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha

I recently lost my first meditation teacher who was the first to introduce me to the teachings of Buddha. Lonely and dealing with loss many years ago in a small coastal city in the North of England, I was struggling with the weight of belief systems that perpetuated my suffering. She came into my life like a beacon of hope. Last month I stood in a woodland together with all her former students at her funeral where a silver birch tree now marks her grave. All my unexpressed love towards her welled up in my eyes and wet the earth that now held her. The mark of a good teacher is one that is not attached to the path their student takes, with the wisdom to know that all paths lead to the same Summit. Our deep bond transcended race, faith, and age without invalidating the differences between us and the unique challenges that arose from them.

In the same city where my grandparents had first arrived in England from the hills of Kashmir, I had unwittingly recreated the religious pluralism that had existed for so many centuries in the land of my ancestors. My taste for vipassana led to a deep immersion into the meditative practices of Mahayana Buddhism following the path of Sufi mystics long before Post-Enlightenment thinkers in Europe. I’ve been blessed to meet many teachers from various traditions, but you never forget your first spiritual teacher. The blossoms from trees owe their existence to the seeds they first planted.

“The wise saying is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.”

Hadith of Knowledge

I feel grateful to have met a genuine teacher at a time when so many of my friends are coming to terms with the abuse of power by teachers they trusted and who I once knew. I’ve vicariously experienced the ensuing fallout in the community we once lived and worked in, one that I walked away from a few years ago. Always an outsider, my words from years ago have been remembered and excavated by friends who now see things differently. It’s been a harsh reminder of the dangers of a concentration of power in the hands of a few. Though validating, it’s been painful nonetheless to witness their varying stances from denial to anger and confusion.

It’s brought back personal memories of being ignored about issues that were only a concern for a few. But a few eventually become many and the truth can no longer be ignored. For as long as those in positions of power only surround themselves with those similar to them, they unwittingly create grassroots uprisings where the power is taken back and the balances readdressed. Brave are those who return to dismantle the power structures from the ground up.

Three years ago I began a cycle of deconstruction in my own life, naively thinking this cycle wouldn’t last so long. Each time I’ve prematurely attempted to reconstruct my life, I’ve faced obstacle after obstacle, the timing has never been right. So I wait patiently on the peripheries of society waiting for the green light to come back into the world with both feet forward. Only this time, I refuse to make myself small enough to fit into existing structures. Either they’ll have to fall first or make space for all parts of me or none at all. It’s not thicker skin that I need but greater acceptance of myself just as I am. Until then, I’ll keep working on my breath and body to make space for the world around me, all parts of it.

A Pilgrim’s Pit Stop in Santiago de Compostela

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As late autumns-cum-winters go, it feels mild to me in Santiago de Compostela, except for when the damp air feels heavier than the overcast skies above. In my wafer thin mac and Kashmiri shawl wrapped around my neck, I stand somewhere between the pilgrims in their trekking shorts and thermal tops and the local Galicians with their heavily padded coats and woolly hats. Occasionally, in this corner of Northern Spain, the dark clouds in the final spell of autumn disperse long enough to reveal a sky blue enough to light up the terracotta tiled roofs with their satellite dishes that dominate my view from the apartment window.

Sometimes on a clear day, from the kitchen window I can see the peak of the ‘Sacred Mountain’ El Pico Sacro . It welcomes the pilgrims walking the camino as they enter the city to pay homage to the remains of the apostle Saint James in the cathedral. There are various testimonies of how his body landed in the Iberian penninsula from Jerusalem. Until the middle ages, Santiago was a centre of pilgrimage, third only to the Holy Land and Rome.

These days, the camino attracts people from all walks of life and from all directions. But I didn’t arrive in Santiago with the pilgrims, not unless you count my 2-mile, thrice-weekly walks to a local osteopath’s clinic. My short walk into the camino was guided by arrows with their yellow-scalloped shell on a bright blue background set into stone pillars and signposts. In place of nordic walking sticks, I used the metal point of my umbrella in its dual use as an aid to my uneasy gait and the constant threat of rain.

And yet, though I haven’t walked the camino, I’m still a pilgrim in my only little way. I keep trodding on with my small carrier suitcase appropriately embellished with a tortoise badge.  When my legs get tired, I rely on budget flights and trains caught at times free from the constraints of a 9-5 life. But the only catch is that I have had to become my own tour guide with no map or guarantee of staying in a destination long enough to call home. And oh how I’ve tried, but the Universe decrees otherwise. It’s difficult to explain to others why I’ve embraced such an uncertain life despite my own fears and insecurities, so I’ve stopped trying. The honest answer is that my body is my guide, not that I always follow its advice. It tells me which direction to go in but it’s not the best of communicators, or maybe I’m not the best listener.

I’m not sure with what intention I came to Santiago, but somehow my body knew. Suffering reveals itself in many different ways, and for one dear Buddhist friend, my body was crying out for healing and she was the only one attentive enough to hear its call. Still, it took me over two years to accept her invitation for healing that bypassed the mind and went straight to the body. So here I am, my mind rebelling the whole time while her team of osteopaths, therapists and body specialists have stretched and reconnected the schisms of separation from long ago.  Doctors, surgeons and physiotherapists may have mechanically cut and forced my legs into the textbook standard of ‘normal‘ but nobody thought to consult or educate the rest of my body. Until now that is. In two weeks, two decades worth of tension locked in a body forced into assimilation and compressed like a spring, uncoiled itself reluctantly.

A torrent of emotions unleashed themselves as memories buried deep in the folds of my muscles resurfaced. Sleepless nights from angry protestors on the streets of Santiago, drunken revellers leaving the bars at 5am and screeching police sirens smashed apart my naive expectation that a place of pilgrimage could be a place of peace. The only moments of grace have come with the sound of rain, the only thing Spaniards hate more than early nights.

I was reminded that sometimes it takes a state of near delirium to reduce our minds into dysfunction and let the body take over the controls from auto-pilot. I wondered if pilgrims walking the camino had the same experience of having their body pushed to the limit in order to cast out their demons. So I walked the cobbled streets of the Old Town continuously in a bit of daze going round and round the same streets with no real purpose or anything to do. Occasionally I would cross paths with a padre or a group of nuns. I came close to seeking refuge in one of Santiago’s many monasteries, but my inner guide shook her head and made it clear that now was not the time to hide and return to my comfort zone.

Struggling with a wall of rigid stances I’ve erected as protection, I have felt the first signs of that wall crumbling. My ambivalence towards motherhood and feminine values have begun to change. I sense the walls built by women in my mothers and grandmothers generation have fortified my own barriers, my inheritance of protection against a harsh world. I often think of all the refugees I’ve met over the last year and wonder if one lifetime is long enough to heal the wounds they’ve acquired in such quick succession. I wonder if their children and grandchildren will be the ones to finally liberate muscle memory with the benefit of time and distance.

Having had a lifelong struggle with the muscles and ligaments in my legs, I often feel trapped by my own body and frustrated by its limitations. In an often recited story in Sufi circles spanning across various traditions, it is said that God made a statue of clay in His image and asked the soul to enter it. The soul refused to give up its freedom in order to enter the prison of a mound of clay. So the angels played Divine music and intoxicated the soul which eventually drifted into the body of clay. Human beings have been searching for freedom ever since.

Yet after two weeks of intense work on my body, I feel lighter, more open and at ease. I’ve learned to uncurl my spine and walk with my head and body aligned. By simply raising my ears and tipping my nose a fraction, my chest is less constrained by my ribcage and I finally have room to breathe again. My heels still don’t touch the ground but that’s ok, I’d still rather be closer to heaven than earth. Maybe in time that will change. As I adjust to my new body I’ve begun to think of possibilities I’ve never envisaged before.

My shoes with their freshly fitted new soles replaced by a local Spanish shoemaker are itching to go to unchartered territories. Mecca and Medina have been calling me for a while but now Jerusalem has added her voice. It began with a soft whisper but now I hear her loud cries. I feel her pain, but I reply that I feel helpless in healing her centuries long heartache. Men have fought over her, tried to possess her body with force, yet none have been able to conquer her infallible spirit. I wait with baited breath for the #MeToo movement to shift its focus to the oppressive domination by patriarchy of many of the worlds sacred sites. Yet men and women with healed hearts and peaceful spirits still go. They walk in the footsteps of Sufi saints like Al-Hallaj who is said to have walked into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and lit up four hundred oil lamps with his finger.

In need of bit of Divine illumination, I tried hard to connect with the spiritual energy of Santiago but I really struggled. The closest I got to eliciting a reaction was during Sunday mass at the Cathedral. Black cloaked musicians blowing into oboes and trombones preceeded the swinging of the incense-burner, a brass gilded botafumerie, smoking with frankincense all the way up to the ceiling vaults. I wish I could have stuck my head under it. A centuries-old tradition it held a practical purpose in that the antiseptic properties of this ancient incense purified the pilgrims and the air around them. Frankincense is also known for its healing properties as a powerful cleanser of the aura and psychic planes.

Yet psychically, like the ash of incense, I sensed a residual antipathy towards the Muslim Moors in this  North-Western region of Spain. This is not surprising when stories are repeated and retold of Muslim conquerors who destroyed the early church above the relics of St. James, the gates and bells taken to be added to a mosque in Andalucia later reclaimed by a Christian King during the Reconquista. A lasting symbol of the power struggles between Christian and Islamic leaders, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is said to have the captured bells from Santiago de Compostela, now hanging in the bell tower that was once a minaret. For most of modern Spain, it seems that the peaceful co-existence of the Abrahamic faiths in Andalucia in times past is as believable as Franco’s realisation of Spain as a homogenous, monolithic body devoid of any cultural diversity.

Yet for young Muslims like myself caught up between cultures and growing up in a postcolonial era, the historical spirit of co-existence in Southern Spain is kept alive by hopeful hearts willing for peace and reconciliation. In an age of intolerance, it takes a huge amount of willpower and faith to separate spiritual truths from religious interpretations through the lens of political empires. Perhaps the advantage of the rise of individualism is that separation becomes easier, and we can judge for ourselves what rings true.

Near the pulpit of Cathedral de Santiago, stands a statue of Mother Mary dressed in a flowing gown as blue as a turquoise sea. I watched women crowd at her feet before lighting a candle. I thought back to my aunt’s recent experience in Jerusalem.  Walking the streets of Via Dolorosa, she’d watched mostly older women carrying wooden crosses, following in the footsteps of Jesus (AS). I found it symbolic of the many women I know silently working as healers unseen and unheard while they carry invisible burdens before sending them back to the light.

Almost inconspicuously, I have witnessed a flickering of curiosity that has genuinely grown into a flame of love. Side by side with my love of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), my heart expands with Christ the healer (AS) raising the consciousness of humanity with unconditional love. Equally, the women that carried them in their wombs have carved a place for themselves in the chambers of my heart.

Though my perception of Mother Mary and Jesus (AS) do not match the perceptions of Western artists and sculptors, I wonder how differently they were depicted centuries ago. It is said that upon returning to Mecca and entering the Ka’ba, the Prophet  Mohammed (pbuh) ordered all icons to be removed. Except one. An icon of Mother Mary (AS) and Jesus (AS) was singled out and saved. Yet beyond the physical borders in our polarised world, the greatest frontier lies in our heart. I think of Ibn Arabi’s heart that was expanded enough to be imprinted with visions of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed (peace and blessings upon them all.)

I thought of this as I celebrated the birth of the Prophet (pbuh) in solitude as I watched the annual Christmas lights brought out by the city men to light up the streets of Santiago. I thought of the symbolic sash of chivalry passed down from Abraham (AS) and Jesus (AS) before being handed to the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) by the Christian monk Bahirah. Stories of Jesus (AS) healing the blind and the leper in the Quran have an altogether different meaning when seen through the eyes of the heart. When hearts are blind, they are veiled from the beauty and healing potential of Divine light. Spiritual leprosy is harder to detect, it disfigures souls and spreads disorder undetected while humanity falsely points its finger at the physically disfigured.

Surely the death of ignorance can allow us to come back to life with the breath of knowledge. Perhaps miracles still exist. It is the month of Hanukkah afterall.

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrim Between East & West

east&west

“Come, come whoever you are. Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair, come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet come again, come, come.”

 

In Sufi lore, there is a cosmic mountain, Mount Qaf. It is said to mark the boundary between the unseen world and the visible. Beyond it, lie the furthest cities to the East and West, the mythical cities of Jabalqa and Jabarsa. It is in the quest for this legendary mountain that from thousands of birds, only thirty manage to complete the pilgrimage to meet the great Simurgh. But then there’s a twist, and I won’t spoil it for you. Not that I’ve managed to complete a single reading of ‘The Conference of The Birds.’ It’s been five years since I discovered it while on silent retreat at a Buddhist meditation centre.  It took another two years, in a different Buddhist monastery (this time Zen) to actually begin reading this epic allegory penned over 800 years ago. When the Buddhist nuns discovered my religious origins, they told me of a visiting Muslim dervish from Malaysia who had been sent by his Sufi teacher to study with the Buddhist monks. The signs were clear. It was time to return and seek the hidden treasures in my own faith tradition.

For the soul of every bird that reaches mount Qaf                                                                    Confers glory on the whole family of birds

Masnavi IV

In Attar’s allegory, the birds pass through seven valleys, each one representing the spiritual stages in the ascension process towards union with God. Firmly rooted in the first valley of ‘seeking’, I decided to do what all seekers do and go on pilgrimage. At this very moment in time, millions of pilgrims are circumambulating around the Ka’ba in Mecca, as we slowly approach the final days of Hajj.

But I didn’t go to Mecca.  Instead, I aimed closer to home and set my compass to the Ka’ba of lovers, the mausoleum of Maulana Rumi in Konya, Turkey. Arriving in Istanbul, nobody bothered checking my tourist visa. It only reinforced the sacredness of my journey. Making my way into the city, I began my pilgrimage in the same place as where I ended it ten days later, on a park bench in the square between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet.

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It took a while to find the right bench with the exact backdrop of located palm trees and towering minarets. The same bench on which my father had sat on only a year earlier, a few months before his passing. The orange marigolds from last summer have since changed into yellow petalled floral displays, but they still draw nourishment from the same soil and light and adoring onlookers.

 

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

Blake

Taking the scarf around my neck and wrapping it around my head, I separated myself from the crowds of sighing tourists by simply uttering the magic word ‘namaaz’. The security guards waved me in for after-hours entry. It wasn’t my first visit to the Blue Mosque. I’d been once before many years ago and remember begrudgingly offering prayers to appease a family member. This time, however, there was no compulsion in my worship. I’d come alone, on my own terms for no other reason than love alone.

I relished in the fact that as a woman, I could enter any mosque of my choosing throughout Istanbul, often entering through the same entrance as the men. As a lover of the Divine, history, and art, it was a heavenly mixture that grounded me in the face of the modern challenges in Turkey. In a city where East meets West, I felt whole. There are few places left in this world that can hold the weight of the different threads that make up my identity. I felt equally at home when walking through crowds of trendy hipsters in downtown Istanbul and the veiled women exercising their right to religious freedom. But appearances can be deceptive. The most confident women I saw were those treading both worlds, proving that it can be done.

Up until now, my experience of visiting mosques in the U.K has always been a disappointment. Devoid of the feminine dimensions of beauty, compassion, receptivity and awe, I am always left feeling energetically drained. Like the priests in black gowns walking their rounds, I can barely listen to a few words of the religious leaders in my community without my stomach wanting to churn. Yet, in Istanbul, something magical happened. Struggling with the heaviness of the grief that comes with the loss of a parent, I was passing Sirkeci station when I heard the call to evening prayers. In need of Divine healing, I answered the call. Standing shoulder to shoulder with random worshippers and the street cats, the imam recited my go-to verses when in times of strife,

“Did We not expand for you, your chest? And We removed from you your burden. Which had weighed upon your back. And raised high for you your repute. For indeed, with hardship (will be) ease. Indeed, with hardship (will be) ease. So when you have finished (your duties), then stand up (for worship). And to your Lord, direct your longing.”

Surah Ash-Shahr

Elevated by the imam’s recitation, I could have kissed the kaleidoscope of colours lining the inside dome and walls. The beauty of being in a foreign country is that you don’t understand the proceeding sermons, leaving just the soft melodious rhythms of an ancient sacred language still ringing in your ears.

Walking back onto the main road feeling lighter and happier, I was met by the sea breeze of the Bosphorus holding me in its embrace. It was pulling in the direction of the East, urging me to cross to the Asian side of Istanbul. Thus my itinerary for the following day was set. Hand in hand with google maps as my faithful companion, I was ferried to the Asian district of Beykoz.  There on the highest point of the Bosphorus, lies the tomb of Prophet Yusha/Joshua (pbuh), the succeeding Prophet after Moses (pbuh). Confusingly, there are two other sites claimed to be his, one in Jordan and the other in Iraq. Though it has to be said that his 17m long tomb is one of the longest I’ve seen and symbolises his reverence by Muslim, Christian and Jewish pilgrims alike. And being ‘Catstantinople‘ a tomcat gingerly slept at the head of the grave among fragrant white flowers, taking its place of honour among the towering humans.

Prophet Yusha

The one advantage animals have over humans is their magnetism to sacred sites of the past without a discriminating eye to which religion they belong. As we look back at the past, we are forced to hold together the beauty of sacred buildings together with the violent chaos witnessed by the eyes of walls, as each civilisation came and went at the beckoning of stronger conquering forces.

“The great kings of the world very often have been pulled down from their thrones  by those who for years bowed and bent and trembled at their command, but the Christ-like souls who have washed the feet of the disciples are still held in esteem, and will be honoured and loved by humanity forever.” 

Hazrat Inayat Khan

 

A serendipitous visit to Ravenna in Northern Italy only a few weeks earlier, had preempted my timeline to the past from Roman to Byzantine, to Seljuk and Ottoman. In the glowing heat of mid-June, I had walked the sandy coloured streets of Ravenna that witnessed the transition from a vanquishing Roman stronghold to the beginnings of a Byzantine dominion.  Their lavishly mosaiced churches formed the model for those still standing today in Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia which was modelled on the Basilica San Vitale.

On the walls of the Basicilca are small squares of gold trapped between two pieces of glass forming a sea of gold behind idealised figures of Christ. I recalled the words of a Lebanese art historian at a lecture I recently attended. The two-dimensional images were an attempt by the Byzantine artists to bring the transcendental into the physical while retaining their otherworldly quality. In contrast, the geometry of the late Neoplatonic tradition and early Islamic civilisations were neither physical nor spiritual, rather somewhere in between the two. The patterns and formations allow the imagination to roam freely, its universal appeal taking any onlooker into a dream-like state of revelry.

As the mosaics made their way to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, it is said that Muslims and Jews were tolerated by the Byzantine leaders but Christian heretics were not. The past is not easy to eradicate and the Christian gnostics with their inherited elements of Greek traditions were prime targets for persecution and book burning. Sufi saints in the Islamic empires have often not fared better. Tales of battling with the orthodoxy is a common narrative. Religious exclusivism is not an easy beast to fight. It has dominated much of our recordings of human culture in its threats against pluralism and tolerance. In the Buddhist tradition, it is said that hidden texts called termas were buried for safekeeping in the knowledge that they would one day be rediscovered at a time when humanity was ready to understand their message. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, has brought us back into contact with the Gnostic texts after a gap of centuries. But will it bring us closer by reigniting the divine spark in all of us?

My summer of pilgrimage would not have been complete without paying homage to the great poets of the middle ages, one from the West, the other from the East. Though the city of Florence still lays claim to its most famous poet, Dante is in fact buried in the city of Ravenna among the jewelled Byzantine churches. Standing in the simple marble interior of his tomb, my love of literature and religion traversed paths.

From the ceiling hangs a lamp perenially burning oil from the Tuscan hills, a posthumous peace offering from the city of Florence that banished him for his scathing criticisms of its leaders. I sometimes wonder if the spirit of la convivinzia of Southern Italy and Andalucia had made its way to Florence, Dante would have still laid the charge of schismatic on the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Taking his secrets to the grave, whispers of furtive borrowings from the Islamic tradition grow louder to haunt the legacy of Dante. Perhaps now is the time to rebuild bridges that were burnt long ago, in spite of the insidious forces that still persist today.

Though my beliefs differ from that of a 15thC Italian poet, I share his passion for l’amor divino and the beauty of words strung together to create a literary masterpieceWe each have our personal definitions of heaven and hell, and my idea of heaven would be to be in a room full of the very same figures banished in Dante’s inferno. One person’s hell is another person’s heaven. What Virgil meant to Dante, Maulana Rumi means to me and beyond. Though Dante’s love for Virgil was compromised by his intensely religious views at odds with the Roman poet’s belief in “false and lying Gods,’’ my love for Maulana is unconditional and unbound by the limitations of reason.

O light and honour of all other poets,                             

may my long study and the intense love                               

that made me search your volume serve me now

Divine Comedy (Inf. 1.82-84)                                                                      

 

My spiritual heritage includes poets, saints, prophets and philosophers who in their all-consuming love for the Divine, insisted that the cup of love floweth onwards to all creeds and cultures. What greater lover of the Divine could there be than Maulana Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known more commonly to you and me as Rumi. With the imprints of the streets of Ravenna and Istanbul marked on the soles of my sandals, I continued onward to Konya in central Turkey.

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I reunited with familiar faces in a gathering of fellow seekers who have accompanied me on my spiritual journey for the last few years. But my heart always has room for more lovers of God, and I was overwhelmed with joy to be in the company of so many kindred spirits. It quickly became part of my afternoon routine to visit the green towered mausoleum of Maulana Rumi and take in the scent of rose water escaping from a treasure box bathing a strand of Prophet Mohammed’s (pbuh) beard.

On a signpost in the rose garden outside Maulana’s tomb, one sign pointed South-East to Syria. Only 616km in distance but a million light years away from the peace and love I felt in Konya. The most peaceful part of Konya was without a doubt at the tomb of Shams-i-Tabrizi. Though the identity of the encased remains remain under doubt, as one local dervish remarked, the tiny mosque holds the energy of those who love him still. Few of the manic crowds of tourists venture out here. Sitting on the bench outside the mosque, I observed devoted lovers for whom Maulana Rumi came as a pair inseparable even in death from his spiritual counterpart that was Shams, the sun that set his heart aflame. Without Shams, we would not have the Rumi we know today. The meeting of these two rivers has allowed us to drink deeply from the well of the Divine.

Meeting two rivers
The exact spot where Shams & Maulana met, ‘The Union of Two Seas.’

Following the rhythms of the Sun, my evenings were brought to life with ecstatic zikr ceremonies with local dervishes whirling, chanting and drumming with vigour to collectively awaken the Divine light within us all. Just as the Earth circles the Sun, and the Moon circles the Earth, harmony is maintained as we gravitate towards the orbits of our natural pathway.

Neither does it lie in the sun’s power to overtake the moon nor can the night outstrip the day. All glide along, each in its own orbit

Surah Ya-Sin, 36:40

The fear of darkness loses its hold in the light of day. Even in the cover of night, the memory of light is kept alive in the hearts of lovers, just as the Moon holds the light of the Sun in the night sky.

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Images of Ka’ba’s floating in the hearts of the dervishes tapped gently on my rusty heart. Tradition has it that seekers and saints would direct their caravans first to Konya to seek the blessings and benedictions of Maulana Rumi before making the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. The only other green domed mausoleum in the world is that of the “Master of the two realms”, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).  I hear Medina calling. In a mere six hours, I could theoretically fly from London to Jeddah with all the other white-robed pilgrims. But I’m old fashioned, I prefer to take the longer road to Mecca. My solo spiritual exploration of the East has only begun. It’s not Airmiles that I’m looking to collect, but parts of my soul that I’m seeking to reclaim. And it can only happen in certain places, perhaps only then will I feel complete. Then I can visit Mecca.

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“This place is the Ka’ba of lovers; he who comes here lacking is made complete.”

(Inscription at tomb entrance, Konya)

For the last few weeks, my caravan has been stationed at an English market town. On my daily walk to the local woods, I find myself reflecting and reminiscing on my summer of pilgrimage. Last week, I came upon a small stripey blue feather shed from a Bluejay bird. In indigenous cultures, blue feathers are messengers of peace. As the gap narrows between my Eastern heritage and acquired Western identity, I took it as a sign of encouragement from the Universe. I’ve put the Bluejay feather with the electric blue feather I found near the family burial ground in Kashmir last winter. The search engines tell me that it’s a feather from the Indian Roller, a magnificently colourful bird with large wings. Bluejays, the Indian Roller bird and the Hoopoe. These birds have been guiding my steps into the unknown. One day when I’m ready, maybe they’ll guide me from the valley of seeking to the next valley that awaits me. The valley of love.

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Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters

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In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges, the foolish build dams.

African Proverb

I’ve been looking at my passport with greater attention lately. It worries me that much of my privileged existence is tied up in a pocket-sized book sealed with the stamp of approval by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II. The much sought-after British passport. To acquire this privilege, I did nothing other than to come into this world in a hospital in an industrial city in the heart of England. The hospital no longer exists, but I still have my passport.

The golden coat of arms of the English royal family printed on the front has somewhat faded from frequent bouts of wanderlust and the thumbprints of strangers. Like the Border Control Officer in the port of Calais just a few weeks ago. Taking in my physical appearance, I’m sure he noted to himself that my face was not so different from the refugees trying to escape. Sitting comfortably in a rented car with friends, we drove effortlessly into a waiting ferry. It carried us back to the white cliffs of Dover across the English channel, a mere 25-mile stretch from the French coast.

We left behind towering security fences topped with razor wires. On the other side, thousands of refugees remain trapped between the homes they fled and a searing rejection in the lands they chose to seek refuge. In a mere five days, my life was shifted by those resilient to all that life threw at them and the people who buoyed their hopes in troubled times. Determined to join forces, me and my friends came together to offer a lending hand. From six different faith traditions, we went with one common cause. We pooled our resources to work with grassroots organisations taking the place of the Welfare State. We slipped into their cohort of an Anglo-French band of brothers and sisters, to offer hospitality to guests lost in the land of strangers.

On our arrival at Calais, the air around me felt heavy and burdensome as if trudging through thick mud. We drove a short distance to the charity warehouse hidden away in a desolate industrial estate. Straight away we joined in the hub of activity brimming with life. With two daily meals needing to be prepared every day for refugees scattered around Calais and Dunkirk, we chopped through endless boxes of vegetables whilst making sure the bread baskets were never empty.

On other days, we sorted through clothes to help insulate our guests from distant lands,  not familiar with the cold European climate. Great efforts were taken to ensure each blanket and tent taken from refugees was promptly replaced. Somewhere in Northern France, there are piles of ripped tents and sleeping bags soaked with teargas. We kept warm in the freezing February temperatures with layers of hats, scarves and thick coats as we worked. When our feet became numb with the cold, we took breaks with steaming hot cups of tea. I wondered how much warmth is generated by the morning distribution of firewood given to refugees dispersed in the woods of Calais.

On the final few days, I had the opportunity to join the food distribution teams. Pulling up in our van on a disused plot of land, the landscape was bleak and barren of trees and instead dotted with pylons. Serving measured portions of curry, rice, and salad I was happy to remove my apron and join the crowds on the other side of the serving table.

I spoke to Eritreans, Ethiopians and Afghans in a language I didn’t know we had in common; Urdu/Hindi. In our globalised world it’s often easy to forget that we may have more common tools at our disposal than we realise. They spoke of their hopes and fears, their wish to join family members on the other side of the English Channel. Their deep faith and conviction shone through the downcast sky of late evening.

Driving to a food distribution site in Dunkirk the following day, we arrived at a somewhat different environment, to a quaint nature reserve. The reflection of a setting sun sank slowly into the lake near us as we served the evening meals. Communicating with some of the refugees through broken bits of English, I wished that I spoke Farsi or Arabic. But their English was good enough to understand my love for “Maulana.” A single word that still lights fires in hearts around our world. Like them, Maulana Rumi was a refugee who fled from war, in his case, by invading Mongol armies in modern day Afghanistan.

Soon enough, my thoughts had become distracted. I was haunted by the images of a scene I had witnessed the day before. Clouds of tear gas chased a group of refugees as they fled from people in power holding emptied canisters. I turned to the words of Maulana for guidance in how to hold opposing feelings in the palm of my hand, of joy and sorrow as my heart opened and closed,

Observe the qualities of expansion and

contraction

in the fingers of your hand:

surely after the closing of the fist comes the

opening.

If the fingers were always closed or always open,

the owner would be crippled.

Your movement is governed by these two

qualities:

they are as necessary to you

as two wings are to a bird.

MASNAVI III 3762-66

 

My memory sped back to just a few months ago, to the hills of Kashmir. As I had watched my father being carried to the ancestral burial ground, a golden crested Hoopoe bird had perched itself on a kikar tree directly in my line of vision. I was mesmerised by this majestic bird native to the region, as my father, shrouded in simple white cloth, was laid to rest in the soil deep in the earth. Through swollen eyes tired from red-eyed flights and an unexpected loss, the beauty of this orange-breasted bird momentarily cut through my grief. Even in the darkest moments, beauty finds its way back to us.

I resolved to keep the warmth of the refugees I met and to guard our interactions in my heart. I felt no anger towards those following orders and abusing their positions of power, only sadness. Somewhere along the line, their lives had hardened their hearts and made them immune to the suffering around them. My sorrow was reflected back to me in the darkness of cloudy Calais skies and the desolation of a grey seafront. The image of waves of murky water washed over me,

 Or its similitude is that depths of darkness upon an abysmal sea, covered by a wave above which is another wave, above which is clouds, creating darkness piled one upon another;

when he puts forth his hand, he would scarcely see it. He to whom God assigns no light, he will have no light.

al-Nur 24:40

I turned to my friends to buoy my faith. We spoke deeply and openly about focusing on the changes we could make, however small. Our kinship across different faith traditions and belief systems renewed my faith in humanity.

There was harmony in our exchanges to balance the dissonance caused by policies and decrees designed to separate and exclude. I reflected back and forth between our differences before resting on common ground. We created a circle of light between us, illuminated by awakened hearts. Our approaches were different but our aims were the same; to build bridges in order to transcend man-made frontiers. Working side by side, we worked with established groups of volunteers who had created a haven of inclusivity, respect, and mutual appreciation.

I reflected on the power of interfaith kinship in past times. I thought back to the first group of Muslims fleeing persecution by the Arab Elite in the 7th century. They crossed the Red Sea by boat to seek refuge in Abyssinia, modern day Ethiopia. The ruling Christian King was urged to turn them away, their reputations smeared as criminals. When that failed, the wealthy elites tried in vain to create divisions by pointing out the obvious differences in belief between the Christian hosts and the Muslim refugees.

The elites failed to sway the King, who instead chose to honour their shared love of Jesus and Mary. The refugees were saved. I looked at my group of friends and recognised a shared value for humanity that overrides any differences in semantics. Were it not for intolerance and grossly disproportionate power struggles, many would not have had to flee their homelands in the first place.

I’ve come back home with a heavy dose of reality, countered by an unshakeable belief in the volunteers who remain in Calais. Regular updates tell me that the inclusive vegan meals suitable for all, given by the charity, have been halted as I write. Meat and potatoes have been replaced on the menu made by hands which don’t hold the same love of the people I worked with. Despite this, my experience has given me a sense of optimism and hope that I have never felt before. It’s not a lazy hope flimsily held by magical thinking and vague sympathies but rather an authentic hope founded on affirmative action taken in a constructive manner.

On our final day, the clouds broke free to let the Sun takes its rightful place. I smiled as I looked up at the blue sky sinking into a sea brightened by much-needed light. The colour matched a bright blue feather I had picked up near my fathers grave in late November. A well- recited verse circled in my mind,

And when it is said to them, “Spend from that which God has provided for you,” those who disbelieve say to those who believe, “Should we feed one whom, if God had willed, He would have fed? You are not but in clear error.”

Ya-Sin 36:47

 

Beyond the battle between the ethics of right and wrong, beyond the basics of food and shelter, is the need to nourish the souls of others. Somewhere between the shores of Dunkirk and Calais is a man holding a Farsi-English dictionary learning a new language through translations of the poetic verses of Hafez and Rumi. Maybe one day I’ll understand the Farsi version and he’ll know the English version off by heart. One word that is shared between our cultures is khuda hafiz, (“God protect you“) our shared etiquette of saying goodbye.

A Tree In Four Seasons

 

vincent-van-gogh-pollard-willows-at-sunset
Willows At Sunset Van Gogh, 1888

This world is like a tree, and we are the half-ripe fruit upon it. Unripe fruit clings tight to the branch because, immature, it’s not ready for the palace. When fruits become ripe, sweet and juicy, then biting their lips, they loosen their hold. When the mouth has been sweetened by felicity, the kingdom of the world loses its appeal. To be tightly attached to the world signifies immaturity; as long as you’re an embryo, blood-drinking is your business. “
Rumi, Mathnawi III, 1293-7

 

Another month, another season. I came tumbling down from the lofty mountains of New York and fell back into the streets of English suburbia. I didn’t plan on staying for long in my native UK, but Providence had other plans. My heart knows where I want to be, but I should know by now that there are always greater forces at play than just the longings of my heart. Who knows how long it will take for My-timing to synchronise with Divine Timing. After a tumultuous start, I have successfully passed the three-month mark, the longest I’ve ever been home in over a decade.  And to celebrate, I’ve come to spend a week in a sleepy coastal town in the South West of England. I’ve conjoined my wayfaring ways to cat-sitting for strangers. It’s a novel way to continue enjoying the few luxuries in life still available to me, at no cost (warning; flexibility required!).

 

From the kitchen table, I watch the evening sunset descend behind a row of trees as it disappears for the night into the surrounding sea’s that lead into the North Atlantic Ocean. When an early autumn breeze carries in warm salty currents through the wide patio doors, it’s tempting to believe that all is well in the world.  I almost feel guilty that I have been blessed with this haven of tranquillity while deep pockets of the world are incurring the dual wrath of Nature and human aggression. Behind the scenes of chaos, I see the Buddhist wheel of life where the pig representing ignorance feeds into the bird representing the poison of passion, making it difficult to stomach the resultant aggression, symbolised by the snary snake. But the shadows were always there, like a poisonous snake in waiting for its next victim. I console myself with the myths of Plato, like the myth of Politicus, as narrated by the Eleatic Guest;

 

The universe, says the stranger, has two cycles, in one of which it is guided by God himself and revolves for a certain period in one direction, but afterwards God ceases to propel it, so that the direction of it’s motion changes and it revolves for an equal period in a contrary direction. The reason for this is that it is impossible for that which has body to be without change of any kind, and this change, of the direction of it’s perfect circular motion, is of all changes the least.

The first period, when God was the Ruler and Shepherd of men, was the Golden Age, and even when the motion had changed, vestiges of the former perfection remained for some time until the growing discord among men impaired the beauty of the world.

The Myths of Plato

The ultimate free-will. The will to lower oneself to the lowest depths of depravity. Or equally, the will to manifest the highest potential of the perfection of God’s creation. Perhaps, as I keep reading, our world will not change by the will of God alone, not unless we change the condition of the world ourselves.

The thought of the political governance of the world solely entrusted into the hands of the human ego driven by free-will, doesn’t seem so far-fetched in some of our world leaders. Equally, I can’t help but see a connection between the benign fear-based religion that many follow in my faith community, without harming others, and the perversion of Islam twisted and bent out of shape to dominate news headlines. The same headlines used to define 1.8 billion of the world’s population, whether they practice the faith or not.  Though the tough shell of exoteric Islam abused and hardened by patriarchy and politics is slowly cracking open to reveal the hidden depths of its esoteric counterpart, it’s painful nonetheless to witness the cracking of the shell. As always, I turn to Maulana Rumi for courage, seeking inspiration from his timeless wisdom,

 

“Don’t turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”

If the world is to be considered as a living breathing object that has been mistreated badly, you can hear the cries of Mother Earth and feel her pain if you listen carefully enough. But I can also hear the silent cries of those hell-bent on causing as much havoc and chaos as possible. They’re like trees planted in the shadow planes that grow stunted, twisting their roots to catch the few motes of sunlight that they can. With each act of tyranny, they inch further away from their primordial purity, their fitra. But to reject the shadows of the world, would be akin to rejecting parts of myself and separating myself from the world. A cancer cell doesn’t stop being a cell just because it’s malignant, and so the body suffers as a whole unit. In times of illness, it’s easy to forget how the body functioned without disease.  The Golden Ages of humanity seem as mythical and ancient as the words of Plato. But there are also cases of spontaneous remission, whereby cancer cells miraculously disintegrate and the body begins to operate in a healthy manner again.

I’m reminded of the fable of the tree in four seasons. A father sends out his four sons to view a pear tree over the period of a year. The first son visits in the throes of winter. The twisted branches of the barren tree shiver nakedly in the wind and the son leaves uninspired despite the early signs of tiny buds. The second son visits in the spring when the buds are starting to swell with potential, filling his heart with the hopes of a promising summer. The third son visits the following season and is graced with a tree in full blossom scenting the air. The fourth son visits in the final season to be met with a tree pregnant with ripe fruit, waiting to be picked. At the end of the year, each son argues the validity of his truth, unable to see the natural continuation of each of their experiences blending into one stretch of time.

I may not live long enough to see the buds of today ripen into fruit, but that doesn’t stop me from planting seeds to be sown by generations to come. Maybe it’s the job of my generation to replenish the land first with much-needed nutrients and create the ideal conditions. In one of my favourite Hadith, which mysteriously didn’t make the cut in Islamic jurisprudence priority, the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) is said to have stated that,

‘Even if it’s your last day, you should still plant a tree.’

 

But the soil is tough and dry, it may take a while for it to become healthy enough to nurture fresh seeds. Pushed deep into the soil,, the seeds need to crack open in the depths of darkness to enable young shoots to push upwards towards the light. This is the most fragile time, but also the most exciting.

 

Tomorrow I’ll leave behind the sterile streets of this quiet coastal town as I swap a somewhat static environment for the challenging but dynamic environment of home. But I’m sad that most of my mixed community of varying creeds and cultures don’t share my love for the environment. Table talk in my family home has evolved from the police surveillance vans alternatively stalking (ir)religious fundamentalists and violent Neo-Nazi extremists, to the Government worker strikes that have left months of uncollected rubbish stewing on the streets. The local park is my sanctuary no more. It’s embarrassing to watch burka-clad women sidestep empty condom wrappers left by careless clandestine lovers. Much like the Parisian dog owners who refuse to clean up after their canine darlings, my local community expects Government employees to pick up their cans, confectionery wrappers and takeaway containers arrogantly tossed at the feet of young saplings.

Like my favourite pair of young gingko biloba saplings on an adjacent side street. Struggling with exam stress induced asthma as an adolescent, I was offered no relief by inhalers prescribed by doctors. My saviour came in the form of small herbal tablets from the gingko plant, a tree native to China. My airways opened, I could breathe again. My love for this wonder tree was cemented for life. The words of William Blake come to mind,

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.

As a man is, so a man sees.

 

But there is one small square of green that still remains my sanctuary. It’s in the family back garden. And incidentally, there is a pear tree in the centre, lovingly tended to by my mother.  We may not have much in common, my mother and I, but the mutual love for this tree binds us together. As the leaves on surrounding trees turn into varying hues of golden yellow, red and brown, the autumnal wind has put an end to the continuous supply of ripe fruit that coloured my summer. Soon the branches will become as bare as Van Gogh’s Willows at Sunset only without the smouldering heat of the Provençal sun. The sun doesn’t burn so brightly in middle England as it does in the golden fields in the South of France, but that’s ok because I know behind the grey clouds, it’s still the same sun.

 

 

Torn Between Two Worlds

 

And to God belongs the East and the West. So wherever you turn to, then, again, there is the Countenance of God. Truly, God is One Who is Extensive, Knowing.

al-Baqarah 2:115

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A lot can happen in just one season. The cool April spring breeze tore me away from my beloved France and carried me across the Atlantic to a small corner of Upstate New York to join the American branch of my Sufi family. I feel like a tiny being, dwarfed by the majesty of the nature that surrounds me. The giant maple and cedar trees have shielded me from all the harsh energies that find their way into my daily Newsfeeds. It’s complicated being a spiritual wayfarer in 2017. I have to navigate around tightening border controls and global politics. But I was one of the lucky ones. In a country that has become synonymous with #MuslimBan, my US visa entry stamp happily sits next to my Pakistani tourist stamp from last summer.

 
For the last three months, I’ve spent my days immersed in study and contemplation, supported by hundreds of acres of undisturbed nature. Red cardinals and bright yellow finches dominate the skylines using the flower patches as their runway. As spring turned to summer, the pink azaleas gave way to orange lilies. Even nature takes it in turn to display its beauty. The evening sunsets are best viewed from the top of the mountain. The half hour trek up a stony trail is worth it for another turn on the ‘Bridge to Everywhere.’ A closed wooden bridge, it stands suspended in mid-air, held only by metal ropes on one end. I often lie flat on my back watching the clouds drift above a canopy of branches. Not for the faint hearted, I love it when the evening breeze rocks the bridge side to side as if I’m being cradled by nature.

 
I’m glad I made the decision to prioritise my spiritual and emotional fulfilment over material security before Brexit and American politics took centre-stage. But it’s an ongoing process. Faith is not a linear process, every disappointment tests me every day. Having hoped my stay would be more permanent in the US, the Universe decreed otherwise. Like a turtle, I will soon have to gather my belongings back into my shell as I prepare for the next stage of my journey.

 
It seems that the early summer winds are now blowing me along warm currents to the East. I’m both excited and terrified by the prospect. To date, my religious upbringing was dictated by patriarchal models cultivated in the East. My spiritual teachings, on the other hand, have mostly been taught by teachers in the West free from the restrictions of normative traditions. And therein lies my dilemma. I’m neither of just the East or West, I am both. How do I reclaim my faith and keep the spiritual freedom I’ve experienced?

 
Early on in my journey, I can see now how I was drawn to a spirituality that largely appealed to my European sensibilities. A child of the eighties, I was the lucky recipient of counter-culture Western seekers who brought back with them the essence of Buddhism without the baggage of cultural forms or prejudices. And so when I freed myself from the pain and exhaustion of upholding my own cultural norms, my Buddhist community provided a neutral zone where my authentic self could emerge. But the world has changed immensely over the last few years. White supremacists and religious extremists have joined forces to push me into reclaiming my faith and culture. And I was plunged into a crisis of identity.

 
Having never been an issue for me before, I suddenly became aware of being a brown dot in a sea of white spiritual seekers. Well-intending individuals who poured unconditional love into my broken soul found it hard to acknowledge my needs were different to theirs, that my needs were not being met in the confines of their monocultural setting. Finding it hard to express my frustrations, my words were clumsy and misunderstood. My struggle was made worse by the different interpretations of ego-identity. It was easy for fellow seekers who belong to majority population groups to dismiss my inner angst. I was told my suffering was self-inflicted by attachments to false concepts of self. And that ethnicity, gender etc are just mere illusions that perpetuate separation from others with layers of false identity. So I suppressed my pain, until it burst out of me, unable to contain feelings of frustration. I felt guilty that the love and acceptance of my friends just wasn’t enough.

 
Yes, we are equal on an Absolute plane of existence. But on a Relative sense, right here, right now, my challenges are different. I am a woman. I am an ethnic minority. I am a Muslim. My needs are different. Why did it take me so long to say these words? I’m not sure when diversity became akin to division, why is it so hard for the world to see unity in diversity? On the other side of the scale, I struggled to fit in all-Muslim Sufi groups. It felt at odds with my inter-spiritual approach, my love for spirituality extending beyond just one tradition. After years of searching, I have finally found an international community of mystics that encourage me to seek out what I need. In my Sufi community in the West, I am again a minority. But my needs are at least understood by my teachers. Nonetheless, my heart yearns to connect with a spirituality that honours my cultural roots but doesn’t come with conditions. I’ve come to the conclusion that when you live between two worlds, it is unlikely that you will have all your needs met in just one setting. It’s time for me to spread my wings again.

 

 

I had to fly three thousand miles to the West in order to find the courage to explore the East. As the doors close on me in the USA and mainland Europe, I take it as a sign to finally explore a spirituality closer to my roots. But it’s not without its consequences. As I contemplate which Muslim countries to visit, I have to take into consideration their strict narrow interpretation of religion, not to mention their volatile politics. My hyphenated spiritual-but-not-sure-if-I’m-religious status is unlikely to be understood. Even less likely to be understood is my Universalist approach to Islam. Sufi mystics with their message of love, harmony and tolerance are at the top of the list of wanted infidels targeted by ISIS. Am I ready to relinquish my freedom in order to seek out the treasures I desperately yearn for hidden in the East?

 
Despite my challenges with my parents, I feel blessed to have grown up in a family where I was given no less freedom than my brothers. France for me was the epitome of freedom, especially when married to beauty. I still mourn the end of my love affair with France. I was like Attar’s nightingale, who refused to part from the rose, not wanting to relinquish a lesser love for a deeper connection with Simorgh, the Divine King. As the Hoopoe says,

Dear nightingale, this superficial love which makes you quail is only for the outward show of things. Renounce delusion and prepare your wings for our great quest; sharp thorns defend the rose”

It was no contest, my love for God won. Towards the end of my time in France, I struggled to speak French. My lips refused to part, preferring to spill out songs of praise in Urdu and Arabic that had lain dormant in my heart for so long. Even during my estrangement I never lost my love for Islamic calligraphy, art and music. But they were always a painful reminder of a world that I had left behind. I have always secretly dreamed about living in cities resplendent with Islamic architecture and art born out of interfaith tolerant dynasties. Maybe the seeds of Sufism were planted in my heart in Istanbul, back when I was on the cusp of my crisis of faith. Then again, maybe the blessings of Ibn Arabi were bestowed upon me during my childhood years when visiting his final resting place in Damascus. But at eight years old, I was too young to realise the significance of this wandering Andalucian Sufi mystic, during an unplanned family trip to the Syrian capital. My heart constricts when I wonder if these ancient holy sites have been left unscathed under international missiles hijacking the Syrian skies.

 
Bibi Zaynab’s mausoleum, however, I do remember. I wonder if she, as the direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed blessed me with his love, when I rubbed my tiny hands on the gilded cage that carries her remains. I wonder if the spirit of her grandmother Khadijah rubbed off onto my childish heart and made me into the woman I am now. When I’ve been forced into situations that required assertiveness I have always looked to Khadijah, a widowed businesswoman who proposed marriage to her employee, the Prophet Mohammed. Considered by some as the first female Muslim mystic, she spearheaded a long line of ancient female saints silenced and sidelined by history. But their memories live on nonetheless. I live by Rabia’s rule of loving God for the Beauty of God alone, neither tempted by the rivers of heaven nor frightened by the fires of hell. The only fire that rages inside a mystic is in their heart.

 
It’s a far cry from the position of many women today. As a young single female accustomed to living in cosmopolitan cities, it has always pained me to see the restrictions placed on women when visiting majority Muslim countries. To this day, some Sufi Orders shun female members. Western females, however, are sometimes treated as honorary males but the language barriers remain. My desire to know the inner secrets of Islam is so strong that it’s a barrier I’m willing to overcome. Love, ishq, is the greatest driving force there is. It’s not Truth that I’m searching for, but Beauty. Maybe one day I’ll realise they were always the same thing.

 
My love and passion is understood well by those who equally love their own traditions. My greatest source of strength in recent months has been the love and support of my Christian and Jewish Sufi friends. Free from the baggage that I hold, they have renewed my love for Islam. They have provided a safe sanctuary for me to explore the inner dimensions of a faith that they see as a continuation of a Prophetic line. They have given me the key to a secret garden that I was denied access to by the custodians of my religion. It humbles me that they have taken the teachings of tasawwuf and sealed them onto their hearts without renouncing their own faiths.

 
With my fellow American Muslim friends, I have found kindred spirits. Our religion is a far cry from that of our parents. We’ve all had our struggles in reclaiming our birthright and forgiving our parents for misusing religion as a tool to control. I recently spent one of the holiest nights of Ramadan in a three storey townhouse in the fashionable district of TriBeCa, New York. Joined by an international crowd of fellow mystics, we allowed ourselves to be consumed by ancient devotional practices cultivated over the centuries. From dusk until dawn we used our voices as instruments as we sang to the heavens and connected to the angelic spheres, our hearts beating in rhythm with the musicians beating their drums. For the first time in five years, I prayed in the traditional Muslim way in a not so traditional setting. Standing shoulder to shoulder, men and women side by side, I allowed my head to bow down as a symbolic gesture of submission to a benevolent force greater than my own.

 
Inevitably, I have first had to process the lingering memories of the old Saiqa. The old me that was trying so hard to be devout that I became overly invested in the outer forms with no inner reflection. And sometimes I hurt others with my narrow-minded, judgemental views. The old me inherited a patriarchal version of religion, one that was created by men, for men. But my old personality was so disconnected from my feminine aspects that for a short while it worked. I can see now that my dominant masculine personality could never have understood, let alone appreciated the path of the mystics.

 
As my own evolution evolves my capacity to understand increases accordingly. I question translations and misinterpretations over the centuries. Now when I read passages from the Quran I do so with the eyes of my heart, chasing subtle clues hidden in the poetic verses of Maulana Rumi. Each person comprehends religious scripture according to their evolution and experiences. Even if I was to speak my truth it would make little impact on those deafened by calcified beliefs. So if I cannot speak my truth, I will embody it instead. As the rust in my heart slowly gets polished, I hope it can act as a mirror to reflect the light I receive and join other illuminated souls. The fact that I’ve managed to cultivate this spirit under the chaotic conditions imposed by the current US government gives me hope for the rest of the world. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I’m sad to leave the US but it’s time for this spiritual wayfarer to step down from the mountain and re-enter the world. As it happens I did see hummingbirds courting the rose bushes in the early morning light in the Herb garden. How befitting for a Sufi centre. It was a timely reminder that I am just a passing visitor and that my soul will continue to push me to ‘go as far as China to seek knowledge.

 

 

For the last few days, I’ve been on silent retreat. Alone in a cabin in the woods, my meals delivered by dear friends. I’m full of gratitude for all the generosity and kindness I’ve received from my teachers, guides and friends. But my heart tells me it’s time to let go of the safety net of large spiritual communities and venture forth alone. I’ve received enough love now to sustain me as I go further. It’s time to try the Eastern model of a more intimate setting and dedicate all my time to learning. Who knows where it may lead me. I just pray that I continue to walk my spiritual path with confidence and trust.