Café Chronicles

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

Today, I am a barista and a waitress. I take orders, prepare hot drinks, heat up pies and spray tables clean. A new kind of experience, a new means through which I can collect some more stories…

It is a bit strange, being on the receiving end of coffee orders: I am used to sauntering into cafés, greeting the barista, ordering my drink. Now I am the one who takes the orders; I am the one whose humanity is momentarily detracted from, so it would seem, every time some obnoxious customer waves a menu in my face, or frustratedly tells me their order – no “please”, no “thank you” – just an order. I wonder if they think my waitress uniform renders me unworthy of kind words – or of any words at all, at times. I wonder if the professionals who mosey in and paint their words with a particular sort of condescending insolence think that their lanyards and titles render them superior, somehow.

I wonder if they would think to treat me any differently, if I were to tell them I am a lawyer, or a doctor, or a professor. But if they wish to treat me in this manner in my current occupational role, I would want for them to treat me in the exact same manner once I go on to do other things. Roles, titles, qualifications – these things will not alter the core of me. I hope they will not take from my humanity, from the fact that I and the person from whom I may order a cup of coffee both eat, both think, both use the toilet on a daily basis. And we both love coffee.

Another thing I have noticed, in the short time that I have been in this role, is just how much goes on behind the scenes at even the smallest of eateries; how much packaging and wasted food is emptied into industrial-sized bins; how much food is cooked altogether, at once.

There are some students who, I suppose, are wealthy enough to dine here every day. Some of them do not even look me in the eye when they ask for things. And this is okay: they do not get to decide how much I am worth as a human, and besides, I am only in this waitressing role for a few hours a day. But I do worry immensely at the state of things when I am forced to witness their repeated insolence: given the nature of the professional roles these students will go on to occupy, I wonder why they seem to lack basic human decency. I wonder if they think certain uniforms are worth more human dignity than others. I wonder if the people they will go on to care for will be worth their compassion and kindness, in their own eyes.

I make myself a hot drink – a masala chai, no less – and proceed to sip at it, at the till. I try to pick up a book for a few minutes, but I am disturbed by a new swarm of customers. They sit down, eat ravenously, take dozens of pictures for their social media accounts, and somehow end up leaving so much mess in their wake, it would seem as though they had eaten double the amount they really did.

I think the essence of humanity can more or less be seen at meal tables. When people eat, they satisfy a base biological need; when they eat together, there is such beauty. There is beauty in friends who get together after months for some tea and desserts; beauty in businessmen who gather around a table so as to discuss, at great length, the state of Pakistan’s economy; beauty in a couple bickering over who is going to cover the bill this time. I secretly love it when the guy wins: male chivalry is not yet dead.

Something I reckon I have mastered the art of is doing things in silence and solitude; I find great peace in it. Wiping tables can be a therapeutic art, and so too can observing people from behind the till. I never really used to be able to eat alone at restaurants in comfort, but I guess I can now. I care not if people may think I am a loner or whatnot. I watch as some people come to this café alone and dine alone. I think they are pretty cool: the art of being alone, existing contentedly in solitude, is one that I have always longed to master.

Whitechapel is a great location to have a café, methinks. People with Cockney accents and Bengali accents walk through its doors each day; people in nurse scrubs; people in prayer gowns and business attire. Nothing brings people together quite like food does, and what better way is there to directly and subtly observe the human condition, than through a part-time role as a waitress?


Sadia Ahmed, 2020

Death

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

Last week, I was made to share a lift with a dead person. This is fairly normal practice at my local mosque – in most mosques around the world, actually. At the mosque, death is not seen as being anything extraordinary. In fact, it is perhaps the most un-extraordinary occurrence that could ever befall a person. From the very first moment that new life enters this world – bellowing and red-faced, screeching and covered in uterine slime – it is a known fact that the only thing that is true and inevitable about the fate of this child is that one day, he or she will die.

This is not news to we humans – far from it, in fact. From the very birth of humankind, there was death, its adversary, its necessary opposite. And yet, we, the alive, somehow act like death is the most shocking thing that could ever happen to any single one of us. We walk nonchalantly into mosque lifts, after being called by melodious Adhāns (the call to prayer), and are taken slightly aback each time we find ourselves accompanied by closed caskets – wooden, cold, long, hexagonal, solemn. We breathe a quick breath of relief each time we realise just how lucky we are, to not yet be the inhabitants of such caskets. For now, the only space that can claim to confine us is this one: the lift, moving upwards, until the responsibility of transporting our souls is re-granted to our more corporeal vehicles, our legs.

But when we die, we lose any such sense of bodily autonomy. We are forced to surrender to the sudden collapse of our cells; to the abrupt unwinding of double helixes. Life goes on, and then it ends. And then we are washed by others’ hands, and prayed for through others’ words and tears, and lowered into the ground by others’ arms. Worms and bacteria may eat from us; these faces we had spent so long looking at in mirrors, and these somethings we have spent so long making of ourselves… all gone. From dust and clay we are made; to dust and clay we poetically return.

It was one Arthur Schopenhauer who claimed that life is rather like an expanding soap bubble. It is gorgeous, wondrous and reflective of so many colours for a while, until POP! One day, it mysteriously ceases to be. But not even the things that make up other things as seemingly purposeless and inconsequential as soap bubbles are entirely lost once they go POP! The detergent and water that marry to give rise to bubble return to their former states once their passion project is made to pop; they drip from the hands of the bubble-blower, and the air that bubble was formerly filled with flies right back up to who knows where. 

Once a human dies, the body loses its animating factor. Muslims call this the soul – the part of us that is immaterial, ever-lasting. Death seems, to external eyes, to be such a pain-inducing, poignant, pointless thing. But to us, it is merely a shedding process – the loss of a corporeal covering, a vehicle, from which the soul exits. Soul goes on to some other life – which is currently inconceivable to we whose only frames of reference can come from this first life – whilst body begins its inevitable rotting process, slowly. Body remains motionless as its loved ones encircle it, their cheeks wet with tears, their hearts heavy with mournful gloom. Body is then made to share a lift with some weirdo Muslim teenager who is inspired by it to go home and write an article on her blog, on the topic of

death.


Sadia Ahmed, 2020

Where is Life?

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

Today, I am exactly 6980 days old. That’s 997 weeks, and a day old. 19 years and 41 days, including 4 leap days; 229.32 months, I have been alive, on this Earth. And it is a concrete fact that I will never be this young again.

Time moves on tyrannously, and human mortality makes himself evident with every breath we release from ourselves. We are mere walking compilations of these breaths, and we are running on borrowed time.

And I know now that life – this unwinding miracle that we are fortunate enough to find all around us – is not to be measured in years nor via ‘big’ destination markers. ‘Life’ is not to be found in graduating from university, nor in finding ‘The One’, nor in the publication of one’s first book. Nay, for it is surely in all the little things: in every pair of eyes that you might look into and feel understood. In the glimmer that lazy winter sun makes in emerald green canal. In the sleep that icy water washes away from your face early each morning. In awkward jokes you share between friends you made happily, accidentally. In midnight stillness. In the silhouettes of dancing candlelight, upon beige room walls.

One day perhaps, you will have crow’s feet, laugh lines, and silver streaks in your hair. It may take you a little longer to walk to the bus stop; you will complain more about back pain and extortionate petrol prices. And you will have far more time in which to lend your human warmth to cold park benches. In this time, reserved and protected for your contented contemplations, you will not long to be embraced by trophies and medals, though they be golden and shiny. You will not find comfort in comfortless fists full of paper money. Nay, you will only think back to where you have come to realise that life is: upon each individual rose-petal and on each dew-dropped blade of grass. There is, you will find, infinitely more beauty and wonder and magnitude in these things than there could ever be in giant ornamental gardens with perfectly-trimmed hedges.

Like sands passing (quietly but violently) through an hour glass – second by second, grain by grain – these are the days of our lives.


Sadia Ahmed, 2020

 

On The Euthyphro Dilemma

[Allahummabārik. May Allah bless my writing endeavours, as well as you, the reader. Ameen]

The Euthyphro Dilemma: an age-old philosophical conundrum that questions if whether what is considered to be morally good is so because (1) God has made it so (i.e. who or what is pious is pious as a result of God loving them or it), or (2) whether ‘good’ is objectively good, and God loves these things as a result of their already being [somehow, ‘innately’] good. Essentially, the Dilemma asks, which came first – God or ‘good’? And how do we know? 

In general, a theist – like yours truly – would argue that God is the origin, the decider, of morality; what is ‘good’ and desirable as actions, and what is ‘bad’ and undesirable exist objectively, and outside of the collective human imagination, for they have been decreed by the ultimate moral legislator: God. By contrast, an atheist – and, in particular, one who might adhere to the view that religion and the notion of ‘objective morality’ are merely byproducts of social evolution – would subscribe to view (2). They would perhaps argue that God – whom, to them, is a mythical being – was invented by humankind and attached to our (collective human) notion of morality, partly as a means of validating our synthetic moral frameworks. There is, to the atheists in question, no objective (i.e. ‘God-given’) morality. There are only chemical reactions that occur in the brain and which give rise to such things as empathy, which thus spur the execution of ‘morally good’ actions. The sources of morality, according to this view, are merely the products of the complex, lengthy, and unguided [happy-accident] human evolutionary process, and subsequently of the ‘civilised’ human being’s imagination. According to this perspective, by asserting that, say, giving money to charity is ‘good’, we are simply submitting to our uniquely human-but-still-animalistic instincts, and construct from all this a false dichotomy between what we perceive to be our base instincts (like the drives to eat and to copulate, which might, in immoderation, give rise to various ‘immoralities’ such as gluttony, adultery, and more), and what we deem to be our nobler ones (such as telling the truth instead of lying, helping others, and staying committed to our spouses). To the adherents of view (2), the extent to which ‘objective’ morality can be seen as objective relies on the extent to which it is inter-subjectively held. Essentially, reality, including that pertaining to what is to be considered ‘good’ and what is not, is dependent on what the most popular view is. This is, undoubtedly, a view on morality that supposes that we can democratise it.

Indeed, it should be noted that, in a debate with Muslim philosopher Hamza Tzortzis, one [celebrity] atheist Professor Laurence Krauss said that he was unsure as to whether incestuous relationships between siblings are definitely morally wrong. For him (and for most of his fellow evolutionist atheists) there are only human impulses that are borne from the evolutionary process to motivate our actions, and the impulses we find that we have, to do morally good things and label them as being good are really no different to any of our other evolutionary-byproduct-impulses. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are not objectively distinguishable in such a manner; it is only because of mass cultural delusions that we have come to label them thusly… For evolutionist atheists, our ‘base’ instincts are really all there is, and there is nothing to genuinely separate the human impulse to save a baby from a burning building from the impulse to kill someone we feel has wronged us.

And, Krauss’ comrade, one Richard Dawkins, habitually assesses God through a lens of human morality, calling Him (the Abrahamic conceptualisation of God) a “jealous God”, along with other defamatory descriptions. From my theistic viewpoint, I would argue that it is futile to attempt to morally evaluate the Creator – the Originator – of morality. This, I feel, is comparable to assessing an artist’s artwork – say, the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh – by a set of criteria of what ‘Van Gogh-esque’ art should look like, which is based on the work of one of Van Gogh’s students. One cannot assess the originator of a thing by such secondary sources. And, if we are to deconstruct Dawkins’ propositions even from a non-theistic or atheistic point of view, well, he frequently attacks religious principles and religion-fuelled immoralities from a secular-humanistic view. But the notions that secular humanism is based on undeniably stem from a moral framework introduced through the Abrahamic tradition. In essence, Dawkins is taken to attacking Christianity using…Christian concepts. He does not believe in objective morality, and yet morally dissects religion. But what is morality, to him and his ilk? As aforesaid, morality is simply what the human mind – these overdeveloped monkey brains of ours – sees as being ‘good’. ‘Me want to do that. It makes me feel good!’ So, what is there, according to him, for us to delineate between the ‘good’ feeling one might get from, say, hitting someone who has deeply offended us, from the ‘good’ feeling of coming to forgive them? According to atheists who believe that morality and religion are just figments of the collective socially-evolved human imagination, our instincts are just instincts, and, despite these individuals’ ironic deployment of such an idea, there is no higher noble plane that we can term ‘morality’.

So… where do these concepts of morality come from – these concepts that humans around the world are born with the idea of and cling to, as evidenced by the fortification of such ideas into most legal systems throughout history and across the world today? How does one ‘evolve’ and pass on ideas about what is to be considered good and bad? In addition to this claim, evolutionary psychologists maintain that the reason as to why people are naturally inclined to believe in God is, essentially, due to the biological passing-down of fictitious beliefs. But how on earth does one pass down a belief? And in what might they be encoded? And how do the encoding materials know what to pass down? Is this all an unguided process – another deeply complex ‘happy accident’?

Enter the Islamic concept of the ‘Fitrah’. The closest English translation to this – a unique and encompassing Arabic term – is ‘the human intuition and inclination that instinctively acknowledges a Creator as well as ideas pertaining to morality’. The Fitrah is like a puzzle-piece-shaped gap in our psyches that awaits its corresponding puzzle piece: pure (monotheistic) religion. Now, religion refers to the worship of God, but, according to the Islamic view, the Fitrah-nurturing truth of the Oneness of God and His religion became diluted and divided into multiple gods – such as the ‘sun god’, the ‘love god’, and many more – as well as multiple religions, over time. The alternative view to this, of course, is the secular anthropological view: that we began with humans who, during the evolutionary process, came up with the grand idea to begin worshipping things like the sun. In line with this narrative, the ‘evolved’ (‘fabricated’) idea of there being a Creator was passed down inter-generationally until our brains somehow evolved to naturally accommodate such a belief [secular scientists often term this the ‘God spot’, though Muslims maintain that this is apt evidence for the presence of the Fitrah], and to pass it down genetically. Then, the concept of dualism was developed – a fabricated dichotomy between ‘goodness’ and ‘evil’, and hence the ‘inventions’ of God and Satan. However, the secular-anthropological argument is flawed in one crucial way: it supposes that our innate faculties for moral reasoning (which even secular psychologists cannot – and do not – deny the existence of) emerged and were collectively consolidated as a result of this gradual social evolutionary process… but from where did this initial dichotomy of good versus evil that dualism was allegedly centred on, come from? An innate inclination to recognise what is good and evil? If this is the case, then, according to the secular evolutionist view, we are just going around in circles now.

Incidentally, the logical foundations upon which atheism is built are also rather… circular. Laurence Krauss, for instance, points to the existence of circles to demonstrate the idea of infinity, to prove that it is possible for a material thing (such as the universe) to exist eternally, infinitely. But the circle he points to in the aforementioned debate was drawn – as drawn circles tend to be. They have a starting point in time; they do not ‘just exist’. The nib of the pencil touches the paper, which causes it to leave a mark; the mark is continued until a full circle is formed. But from whence did human morality originate? Did it start with a self-causing BANG which led to matter gathering the way it did, leading to life – a happy accident – and then eventually to humans who (via the happy-accident invention of language and reasoning faculties) can ask if actions are ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Or was – is – there, perhaps, an Unmoved Mover, a Creator of humans and of a moral framework that we should abide by – a Creator that actually created the atoms and cells that, according to Krauss, Dawkins, and other atheists – haphazardly arranged themselves until, somehow, they could ask existential questions of themselves?


  • If you would like to contact me regarding this post – to express your agreement, disagreement, or some constructive criticism, perhaps – please feel free to email me: sadia.6@outlook.com

 

Sadia Ahmed, 2020

 

Ask Sadia: Gap Year

Screenshot 2020-01-12 at 23.26.04

Dear Spongebob, 

Thank you very much for your kind compliment regarding my blog, and thank you for submitting a question. And yes, you heard right: I am indeed currently on a gap year.

I would say that the advice I would give in response to this depends on the nature of the ‘various reasons’ that have led you to regret not deferring your offer. For instance, if it is a highly pressing health concern (e.g. severe anxiety, or some other chronic illness that makes prioritising your studies extremely difficult) I would highly recommend taking a year out. However, if your reasons are mainly because, say, you are comparing yourself to people you know who have chosen to take gap years and who are seemingly greatly benefitting from them, I would say that there are other ways to obtain similar benefits to them.

And I do think that taking a year out of institutionalised education is so very beneficial, in my own subjective opinion. I would enthusiastically recommend it to anyone – even though it was a fairly last-minute decision that I had made. But I really have (Alhamdulillah – all praise be to God and His Plan) benefitted from this year out (thus far) in a number of ways. My working in retail, for example, has led to my acquiring skills and wonderful experiences I really could not have garnered elsewhere. I have met extraordinary people, and have managed to network with people from a range of different occupational backgrounds. And it is so true what they say about how gap years are a great time to ‘find yourself’. I have never known myself as well as I have come to know myself within the last five months.

Ultimately, the amount that one can benefit from taking a year out is crucially dependent on one’s willingness to plan it well, and to find and seize beneficial opportunities. I must admit, these days I find myself in a state of exhaustion most days, because my weeks are filled with work shifts and events and meet-ups with various friends and family members and such. But these things, I think, are so important. The amount I am learning – and not for exams, but for my own satisfaction and benefit – and the positive experiences I am amassing and the great bonds that I am actively nurturing… I am glad I do not have a massive helping of university stress to add to this mix (…yet).

That being said, it is all a matter of perspective. I know some people who have also chosen to take a gap year who are stuck on what to do with all their time. Likewise, there are some people who are at university and who are, on the whole, not really benefitting from their experience because they are choosing to treat it as if it is just a necessary evil – a treacherous journey of sleep deprivation and exams that they must undertake if they are to secure decent jobs in the future.

Moreover, it is important to note that, if you are passionate about taking a year out – say, to travel, or to explore your identity and interests and such without having exams and assignments to worry about – you could potentially take this ‘gap’ year after university. In this time, you may wish to work a few days a week, save, and then do whatever you want, before officially entering the world of work.

And if your reasons for regret are centred on not enjoying the course you are currently studying, or not particularly liking the university you are at, know that it is absolutely never too late to change your mind – about anything in life. Ultimately, this is your life. Some people pursue a particular career path for decades and then one day wake up and decide to completely change things up and leave the job they have practically always worked at. Some people retake exams in middle age because they, too, want to change things up. And this is so okay. If your concern is the fear of losing £9250 by ‘dropping out’, well… in the long run, you probably would not resent this loss too much if it means that you do not come to hate your life and what you do every day. Moreover, you are more likely to make more money if you are passionate about what you do – so do bear that in mind.

I hope this response was of at least some help to you, Spongebob. And I wish you all the best.

Sincerely,

 

Sadia.

Ask me a question (or tell me what’s on your mind) here


Sadia Ahmed, 2020