On Place and Personhood

We often find ourselves explaining who we are in relation to different places. We speak of ‘home’ – which, aphoristically, is ‘where the heart is’ – as being merely a three-storied house, or a small city apartment, in which we and our families might dwell; we also talk of our ethnic ‘roots’- of distant lands that we decide we are emotionally tethered to as a result of our ancestral backgrounds, and we speak of these countries as if they were secondary (phantom) homes. Through frequency of our visiting them, we become attached to various shops, parks, youth clubs, libraries, and other buildings and institutions. We come to define ourselves as being ‘Brits’, or, more specifically, as ‘Londoners’, or even ‘North-, East-, South-, or West-Londoners’. It is as though we each carry within us chunks of the places that purportedly define us so integrally; we act as if it is more true that places shape individuals, and less so vice versa.

Our brains, when conceptually reduced to their simplest forms, are filtering, meaning-making machines, and we define spaces in accordance to the ‘settings’ on said filtering machines. We thus find ourselves identifying with landscapes and ‘vibes’ that best suit our temperaments, and favouring cities that are most compatible with our aesthetic, spiritual, and otherwise individualistic values. It is important to note that there is a key distinction to be made between ‘space’ as an abstract but undeniable entity, and its more decorated fraternal twin, ‘place’, a more personalised concept. While space is a more objective idea – referring solely to the ever-present dimensions of height, width, and depth, through which all objects move – place involves the ascription of meaning to said spaces, whether on a purely functional (e.g. “This space is where I fulfil my bodily need to eat”) or a more emotional (e.g. “I associate this space with feelings of joy and love”) basis. When one strips away the cultural associations, emotions, ideas, and the sensory information that can be garnered from a space, it essentially ceases to exist as a place. For example, if you were to visit your favourite beach while your eyes are open, and while you are able to consciously process your surroundings, you may be overtaken by the simple splendour of the landscape, or by some deep nostalgic sensation. The space, to you, has meaning, and somehow embellishes your own personal reality. But if you were to exist in the same ‘place’ with your eyes closed, and with your other sensory functions shut off, despite existing in the very same space as in the former scenario, your internal reality has not been altered in any way. You cease, momentarily, to exist as a sensing being, thus extracting any subjective ‘place-ness’ from the space in which you stand.

Spaces – a positive idea – only become meaningful places – a more normative notion – when there are sentient, conscious, beings around to decode them in line with the nature of their own pre-existing cognitively wired states. The manner in which we have come to perceive places is not as a consequence of their external, cosmetic elements  – not in the greenness of their grass nor in their coolness of climate or oaken floors. The significance we grant to different spaces evidently stems from within us, and if any objective and true concept of place does exist, it is embedded deep within our psyches – in the same abstract and internal reason as to why two people can look at the very same landscape – the same objective point in space – and draw from it two very different conclusions of reality.

And this is one reason as to why I firmly believe that the idea of human consciousness – and the sheer immensity of variety between different people’s conscious realities – is inarguably the most magnificent thing in existence. 

Sadia Ahmed, 2019 

Conversations with my Neighbour

“I haven’t been to church in nine months, after 70-odd years of never having missed a day of it. I don’t like religion anymore.”

Reverend Desmond Baker. Seventy-nine years of age, and one of the most remarkable souls I have ever known. Priest, friend, patriotic Welshman, ex-doctor, ex-magistrate, ex-midwife during the birth of the King of Saudi Arabia’s son, ex-friend of Mother Teresa’s, walking embodiment of the Biblical notion of “lov[ing] thy neighbour”, and… an active and proud Freemason. Desmond, known to others as ‘Father’ but to us as ‘Des from next door’, deserves to have a lengthy biography written in his honour, simply by virtue of who he is but certainly aided by his fascinating life story. For now, however, this meagre blog article will have to suffice. 

My earliest memory of Des is from when I was seven. We had moved into this flat (No. 6) in the prior year, and had become acquainted with our next-door neighbour (No. 7) in a somewhat less-than-ideal way: the cosy smallness of our home, in volatile reaction with the crazy immensity of my extended family, made us a magnet for noise complaints [but we apologised profusely and often, by habitually sending over containers of rice and curry]. From this noise complaint-curry-conversation cycle eventuated an important friendship between my parents and Des, and one that granted me access to his beautiful cats. My mother frequently sought his counsel for such matters as dealing with the local council, and plumbing issues we occasionally experienced; he started to frequent our flat on his own accord too, presumably when he tired of the sole company of his cats (and Jesus). Once, at the age of eight, when I had somehow managed to break the lock on our main door from the inside (thus preventing myself from being able to go swimming with my aunt and cousins, who were waiting on the other side) Des came to the rescue, equipped with a ladder (so as to help me escape via the small window beside the door) and a toolbox.

When I was fifteen and struggling to fully mentally grasp the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, I knew exactly where to go in order to get my questions answered. Des’ living room is a truly unique and interesting place; it is at once a museum to the richness of his life thus far, and a sizeable shrine to Jesus. The windowsill is lined with photo-frames: there is one that depicts a younger him with his old friend Mother Teresa; one that shows him sitting outside his family home in Wales with his ten cousins; one that shows what Wapping looked like decades before our arrival. The biggest photo-frame of them all is the one he keeps of his mother, her beaming smile immortalised, right there, in the centre of things. Scattered across the aforesaid museum are clay figurines, paintings, books, all dedicated to Mary and her (in his view, divine, in my view, prophetic) son. But the most mesmerising artefact that lives in Des’ living room, I think, is the large antiquated copy of the King James Bible that sits, beside a pair of cotton gloves for handling purposes, atop a circular oak table next to the sofa. It is over two centuries old, and was given to him by his grandmother.

Today, a decade after the other incident involving keys and our priestly next door neighbour, I came home from an appointment and realised, much to my frustration, that I had forgotten to add our new front door key to my own set of keys. It is, perhaps, my belief in Islam that leads me to accept that things happen for a reason – that God works in mysterious ways, and that His wisdom is at once magnificent and incomprehensible in its entirety. My parents were both at work today, and the only other person who has a spare set of keys to our house is Des.

Eighteen – as well as being my first year of legal adulthood – has been the most difficult year of my life thus far. There are cosmetic reasons for this – extended family issues, intense bouts of anxiety and depression, a missed Cambridge offer – and some deeper, more complex reasons that I would prefer not to publicly divulge [we love a bit of mystery and intrigue]. When all possible (legally, and morally, acceptable) avenues for relief are stripped away, we often find ourselves standing with nothing but the twin tools of hope and faith in our arsenals. It is under such circumstances, and as a culmination of my ongoing existential crisis (which I so frequently refer to) that I began to delve more deeply into questions pertaining to theology [my current situation looks rather like that part in Life of Pi when the protagonist finds himself restlessly trying his hand at different religious traditions, in pursuit of Truth]. I have finally found it – doctrinal satisfaction –  in Islam, which is the religion of my forefathers, yes, but I have (re-)discovered its truth in a way that speaks uniquely to me. I do, however, think it is ignorant to outright reject Christian doctrine and its related exegetical works, like so many fellow Muslims often hastily do. In actuality, part of our declaration of faith includes accepting God’s books – plural – which include the Bible (Injīl) and Torah (Tawrat).

Christians are taught to “love [their] neighbour[s]”, while Muslims believe that “He is not a true believer who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. Today’s theological gossip sesh with Des – a conversation between a religion-wearied priest and a Muslim teenager-in-crisis – instilled in me a profound sense of hope, especially when my wonderful neighbour told me that this intense crisis I find myself experiencing at this age – of life, of identity, and of faith – Mother Teresa (a human epitome of awesomeness) herself had experienced in her seventies. Often, admittedly, I do feel like an old woman trapped inside a youthful body – like a retiree who has already experienced life’s traditional stages, and who now finds herself sitting in comfortable solitude, contemplating the nature of reality. But I digress. Des – my neighbour in real terms and as a fellow follower of Abraham – reminded me, through a series of ancient and modern parables, that there is light, somewhere, at the end of this tunnel. And as hackneyed as the phrase is, gap years are a wonderful time to ‘find oneself’ – and to draw divinity, somehow, from downright decay [I really am a fan of alliteration!]. After teaching me about the adapted version of the Trinity doctrine that Hindus believe in, Des told me that, by the 200-year-old Bible whose magnificent and palpable presence we were sitting in, he is able to wholeheartedly promise that I can and will be able to find refuge and reconstruction from this overwhelming rubble, and that

Wherever there is life, there is always hope

Sadia Ahmed, 2019

Bal Masqué

And I wonder, often, whether the world truly is becoming progressively screwed up, signifying the proximity of the Second Coming – or if all this is just a Second Uncovering of our true nature as humans. Are we just collectively becoming tired of ourselves, and thus find ourselves clawing away, in determined exhaustion, at the layers of pretension and so-called propriety we have created over centuries? Are we simply – and finally – relieving ourselves of our make-up, masks and bowties, in desperate pursuit of the organic hideousness of what lurks – what thrashes and thrums with vivacity – beneath it all?

Talking to Jilani on Eid day reminded me of the Japanese proverb about the three faces that we each possess. The first face is the one we tend to share with our families; it is polite, obedient, and domesticated. The second, we share with friends and other acquaintances; it is slightly more animated and authentic. But the third face is the one that is most integral to who we are; it is the one that only we ourselves can know and understand.

Our third faces are cloaked by our Jungian shadows – by the bleak colour palette of realism. Our first and second ones are governed by our sensual primal urges – by the instincts that drive us towards seeking pleasure and attention, and away from pain and abandonment. These two sister faces are enveloped in airs of idealism, and human society has been constructed atop their needs. Modern society is ugly and illusory by nature; it domesticates our wolfishness and conditions us to partake in a grand and absurd rat race. But what is even uglier (by our own, ironically self-constructed standards) is what we manage to hide so adeptly, beneath it all.

The third face – the jealous, perverse, perpetually restless, hyper-competitive, traumatised, misunderstood, ‘ill’, spiteful, controlling monster that quietly and effortlessly tyrannises every aspect of our beings –  this is what bubbles intensely but silently beneath the surface, erupting into our realm only very occasionally. We try to run from it; of it, we are terrified. But it is inescapable. The subconscious – the most extensive part of our conceptual realities – conceals all that the world has decided to deem unacceptable to itself: the things that are unbefitting for a terrestrial theatre designed primarily for extroverts and professional pretenders.

‘Real life’ has not felt like real life to me for quite a long time. I yearn for something more than this – the very thing in whose absence my soul might ache in remembrance of. I often daydream of opting out of the toxic cultural stages I find myself standing on – by birth, and not by choice, I might add. But I have been moulded in order to fit their cookie-cutter templates: there is no immediate way out. My mind is far too dark and wide for my liking. The stars that have, for some time, bestrewn it as a result of God’s favour are becoming increasingly difficult to locate. Perhaps this is why I take a particular liking towards matters concerning astronomy and the universe. I know a thing or three about dark matter. It follows me, irrespective of where I go or whom I am with. It is crippling and unconditional; it is too much. [And oh, how I sometimes wish I were an extrovert – to be able to escape from its tenacious grip, at least sometimes]

My third face, my third universe. I want to confront it; to hear its belligerent roar with my own ears; to conquer it, and then

I want to find a way to love it. 

Sadia Ahmed, 2019