Appearances Versus Reality

Today, my friend Tasnim came all the way to my area, and we went on a nice walk, which had been coupled with a conversation that, Alhamdulillah, brought me such comfort; gave me an insightful, wise, alternative perspective on things. We spoke about our lives, and about our thoughts, and about our ideas pertaining to ourselves, and to other people and such.

            A key theme in today’s conversation would appear to have been that of ‘irony’: as a teacher of ours had taught us a couple of years ago, this term, in Literature at least, refers to “the contrast between appearances and reality” [Sidgwick]. A crucial theme in English Literature, because it is a crucial theme in almost everything, when it comes to this human, Dunya-based, existence.

            Irony: between what appears to be, and what actually is. When one character – person – is convinced of something, for example. And life is a collection of various journeys that tend towards the actual truths of things. The images, the stuff of outsides, and of projections and such. Holographs; assumptions; mirages. The temptation of the harmless-seeming apple whose poisons seem impossible, from here. And… when we get closer to their cores.

My little cousin Dawud, for instance, is utterly convinced that the moon glows white because it has batteries in it. I, on the other hand, sort of arrogantly believe that it does so because it is reflecting some of the sun’s light. And in reality, I am only a grown-up (somewhat-knowing, but mostly not-) child. I concede; I accept my weaknesses and fallibilities. I guess I don’t really know much at all.

But, yes, I look for what is true. I want to try to part with all of my currently-held convictions: all save for One. There is, after all, constantly: all these things that we think we know. Maybe they are not true; maybe they never were. Or, maybe they were true once, but are no longer so. You know: how we can be proven wrong about these exact things, over and over and over again. To awe-inspiring (positively surprising) ends, sometimes, or to ‘disappointing’ ones, (on our limited-and-human level, at least) other times.

But I make Du’a for whatever is best for me, which may not seem always quite so obvious here in the ‘now’. I see only a pixel of the (what seems to me, to be a) puzzle, while only Allah has power over the entirety of the picture. And my heart, I suppose, always feels far more at ease when I fall for what is real, and, in a connected manner, focus on what is True.

So maybe, like, say, a headstrong baby being guided away from eating those poisonous household things that seem, to them, most ‘exciting and colourful’: maybe I simply, at present at least, do not know much at all.


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Once in a lifetime, these moments do come

You know when it is raining, suddenly, in the darkened part of an otherwise busy city? Even at this moment in time: here in lockdown. The cars jetting past, and you can almost hear exactly what the pitter-patter might sound like, from the inside of each and every one of them, inhabited by different people, coming from entirely different worlds.

That feeling of being snug, and warm. In good old-fashioned checked pyjamas, maybe; safe from the cold, and from the wet, the racing, the Anonymous and Alone.

On rainy evenings, it seems like everybody is simply in a rush to get home. Umbrellas look drizzly and forlorn; streetlights glow orange, while makeup, we find, begins to drip into something a little grotesque. Suits, also, at such times, do not look all that comfortable to find oneself wearing.

            Some shield their lacquered heads with newspaper, or scarves; crouch and, in the whirring, pouring noise, make that face: the one that looks rather like disgruntlement. Phone pressed to their ears; water getting hopelessly into their eyes.

Children, in fur-coated hoods, fixate on the excitement of puddles; stoop towards them, in fascination, ready to jump and splash and see themselves again (much to the annoyance of their parents, whose primary concern it now is to get home as quickly as possible, and to make something suitably comforting to eat). Faces rippled: recognisable, and yet, at the same time, hilariously zig-zagged and distorted.

Wellington boots, roof windows for a better view, and acrylic-coloured mugs of hot chocolate. The ‘little’ things, but why on Earth are we known to call them ‘little’? What might the ‘big’ things be, then, in contrast? The… loud, the shiny, the demanding-our-attention? The distracting; things that are extravagantly hard-to-get, the hundred-things-at-once, or the… once-in-a-lifetimes?

This here moment is a once-in-a-lifetime one. Even if it is quiet, and seems ‘unremarkable’, and ‘everyday’: it will never, ever be here again. Not like this, anyhow. And everybody you know and love is getting older, and this here world of yours will never be the same again:

Everything, dear friend, is going to change. As they always have done, and as they always will do:

(until the End, that is).

And I hope we get to see the rain again. Here, perhaps, and in another place;

Another time, another age, and maybe in an altogether different way.

Alhamdulillah for the rain, though. And for the feeling of it on our hands and on our cheeks: Barakah, Rahma, and hope. And for the ability to go home. To close the door. To feel warm, and dry; your entire world, and that you are not alone.

Because it is a big, big, big world out there. Bee-lines, and busy bees. Loneliness and exhaustion; superficiality and disease.

Tall shiny buildings, buzzing away with productivity. A million and one things to buy, and to own, and to try to feel powerful — seen — through. Cars racing through traffic, and the like. But would this life not be… a little unbearableterrifying, actually – without this peaceful slice from all that madness,

which we are thoroughly fortunate enough to call our own?


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

Winter

Autumn and Winter. What gorgeous times of the year these, time and time again, prove to be. Just the idea of being cosied up in a couple of layers – or six – and the way the sky falls to dark blue, even hours before night-time is actually due… There is something that is so enchanting and mysterious, so uplifting inasmuch as it is nose-freezing, about this most beautiful time of the year.

Christmastime comes around, and so do all the jumpers. And the endearing little decorated mugs of hot chocolate. Lights and festivities, and all else. I cannot believe that we have now officially reached Winter 2020. These past two years, at least, have felt like they had just arrived, tipped their hats off to us, and left.

Winter is cold, and she is often storm-like. Impels us, through forceful gusts, to appreciate the warm homes that we do have; the safety. The newly-warmed dips on duvets; atop cushions and rugs. Feet blanketed in wool-soled boots, and

Although now is the time that the goblins of consumerism do come out to play a bit more, [think: Black Friday. Christmas. Boxing Day. New Year’s. Sales that compel mankind to obsessively buy, buy, buy. New, new, new. Through creating false ‘needs’, for us, through making us believe that without having these ‘new things’, we ought to feel so very dissatisfiedSigh…]

now is also very much a time during which we can look inwards. Learn to patch things up. A small tear in a top? Why not employ some of our Year Seven D.T. skills and go ahead and mend it, instead? Why won’t we love what we have: it is enough. And when we are grateful — look inwards and commit to truly appreciating these blessings of ours — we are granted Barakah within these very things.

These bodies, and these souls, of ours are the only ones we will have (the former, in this life, at least. The latter, in both this world and Ākhirah…) They are not ‘perfect’; may we love them. Friends, family, school/work. Texture, edges, unpolished, and uniquely yours.

In my opinion, it is far better to live in a warm-enough camper van, for example, which finds itself suffused with Barakah, than in some stone-cold stone castle, in which material possessions may be ornate and many, but where there is no Barakah.

And what are the ingredients that may lead to a guarantee of our having this Barakah? I think it is about sitting on the floor, sometimes, and acknowledging what we really are. Outside, and irrespective of, titles and roles and any of these ever-present delusions of grandeur. Of us, it is our souls that matter, and is this not what Winter does:

It sings to our souls, while our bodies stay at least somewhat cold. Warmth, like most desired and delightful things, is only truly known when juxtaposed with its opposite: cold. And maybe the same could be said, for love: outside, it is cold. The trees look more bare, things look sort of lonely. Inside, however,

a hand upon a hand may be all it takes. Forehead pressed upon ground – on decade-old (though intermittently washed!) prayer rug, a letter of gratitude to your Creator. A heart, which you, its keeper, can silently witness, when it says, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I think I have always loved Winter. She had been the first season I had ever known: I had been born amid her, and she feels like home. Sometimes her rains are furious, and sometimes her snowfalls are more graceful, elegant. Winter sun can be ever so bright, spilling across dew-dropped grass, sending spirals of icy breaths outward and upward. Deceptive, though, for Winter Sun is not usually warm, as it is ‘meant’ to be…

Winter moon often appears when we least expect him to. 4PM and there he is already, all eerie and nonchalant. Silently brilliant: not begging for our awe, for our attentions, and yet receiving them, very much deserving them, anyway. The way he is known to glow – luminescent, and not angry, defensive, or ‘fierce’ – but only when the sky has become dark enough for him to do so.

I want to say, to those of you, dear readers, who have Depression and/or Anxiety, or anything else of the sort, that… I know it tends to get more difficult around wintertime. These seemingly implacable tirednesses, wisps of sadness.

I hope you learn not to feel guilty when the ‘work’ you have to do is not your first priority. Work itself, I think, ought to be for the sake of – for the good of – the soul. Your value as a being is not determined by ‘how many hours of work you have managed to complete today’ and, truly, nor is it about comparing ourselves to others and what they may be doing. Your circumstances are different; your journey is your own. Your needs: sleep, rest, comfort. They matter far more.

The difficult days: may they strengthen us, and may we be strong enough to get through them, always, Āmeen. And I also wanted to say:

As cliché as these words do sound, over time, it does get better, Bi’ithnillah. Seasonal Affective Disorder: the sun eventually does come back up, doesn’t it? These things work in cycles…

Generalised Anxiety: it is there. At times it makes you quiver and quake, but you know what it is. It is powerful, but it will not win, Bi’ithnillah.

When you are tired, dear friend, please do let yourself sleep. And when you are sad, do cry, even if it means that your whole body sobs with crying. It really is okay sometimes. And when you are in prayer, do thank Allah over and over again. When you are reciting Qur’an, recite with melody; feel your heart become still, become calm: recollected, reconnected.

Social anxiety: that uncontrollable feeling of terror, of being seized. But at just what, though? What are your fears? That you will be disliked? Why have such thoughts, over time, solidified into beliefs, in your mind? Are you loved? Of course you are… Then, the extent of your fears is fundamentally unfounded. This may be difficult to hear, but…

Maybe, new seasons within our lives ask for new versions of ourselves, to come through. To meet the present challenge; to embrace present blessings, too. Maybe this season requires of us some newer ways of thinking. Maybe the world had been one thing, to us, then. Maybe – most likely – it is something altogether quite different, now.

You had been afraid then, maybe. Perhaps with good reason. But you do not require those same modes of thinking in order to survive and/or ‘thrive’, now. Look around you. Things have changed, haven’t they. Sometimes, what it takes, is to say to these erstwhile, obsolete thoughts of ours, a simple but strong:

Nope.”

You belong here, I promise you. And, atop this Earth, you walk along as a person who is loved. Beloved. It is truly a blessing.

Depression, though: what a thing. Albeit often misunderstood. On some winter mornings, you will feel the heaviness a little more acutely than on some other days. But looking inwards rather than unfairly, unrealistically, unhelpfully outwards… really does help, I think. Make Du’a, and when you are ready, you will get up again, Insha Allah.

To quote a Moroccan proverb I have recently come across:

Drop by drop,

the river rises.

Dear friend, give a little time to yourself. Some more space, some more depth of understanding. Winter can be hard. Anxiety and Depression: the Winters – the less favourable parts of it, I mean – of these minds of ours. We must trust, though, that the sun is about to come up again. It usually, and sometimes when you least expect it, does.

Your personal journey may look rather different to my own one, but they are likely to be fairly similar, in terms of essence. This is what happens: time goes on, and things change. We adapt, and we learn and we grow. Step by step, we come to overcome certain things. And, drop by drop, drop by drop, the river rises, becomes.

There will be some more difficult days; sometimes it may feel as though things are rapidly, and right before our very eyes, becoming undone. But we trust our Lord, do we not? We take care of our tasks – put our effort in – and we leave it all to Him.

When I think of strength, and when I wish to be reminded of the sort of progress that due trust and reliance upon Allah can bring about, I think of my infant cousin, Siyana. Born prematurely, two-and-a-half years ago, and placed in the ICU. Her fingernails had been as tiny as short grains of rice; her clothes smaller than the ones that little children are known to put on their little dolls.

How fragile and how strong this child is. We now see her running around, strong and spreading such joy, that characteristically quizzical expression on her face, frequently sending my nan and we into fits of laughter. Trying to lift her father’s weights. It has taken some time, though. From those early months, during which her parents would mostly take it in turns to be with her at the hospital. Get her milk ready; those sleepless nights of theirs. Over time, though, things, in this regard, got easier. Siyana grew in strength. Seeing pictures of her from 2018, in comparison to the animated character we know her to be now… Oh, how she has grown. And from her story, I do take quite some inspiration.

As well as from the stories of some other individuals I have had the fortune of having been acquainted with, this year. Ms N and Ms Z stand out. What kind people; what (quietly, secretly) strong individuals they are. They have told me about (parts of) their own journeys. Exceptional. Embodiments of how Allah rewards As-Sabiroon (the patient/steadfast ones).

We begin from somewhere; drop by drop, or millimetre by millimetre, we grow. Through time, via experience, and as a result of our choices. We adapt, and we fall, sometimes; we get up again.

[What counts is what you do [now]]. ‘Philosophical presentism’ and all [Thank you Tas, for teaching me about this…]

Khayr, khayr, khayr. May we learn to focus on it, and give it and receive it.

And may we realise that when we give it – the good – due love:

it does grow.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Rugged Charm

This blog article is based on some important conversations that I have had this week.

I find I am quite mentally exhausted after a very full week, so please do excuse the possibly rather shoddy writing quality of this one!


Dear friend,

Most are known to spend

their evenings in search, searching,

For some other life.

Sometimes, it seems, the more we come to think about, or are made to think about, the overarching reality (and its manifestations, the ancillary realities) of these worldly existences of ours… the more we seek to escape from them. Act. Deny certain things; plunge ourselves into certain other things, instead.

And then, we may start comparing ourselves and what we are doing – and, thus, what we are ‘being’ – to what others may be doing; how they may be living; feel the weight of ‘societal pressures’ atop our shoulders. Our peers. Some of them seem like they are so very ‘put together’. Like they could not possibly be struggling in the same ways as we find we are.

But if anything, this pandemic period in particular has exposed to us the essential sharedness of human truth[s]. That it does not matter if you live in the suburbs of London, or in a quaint little seaside town in Kent:

The truth is, to be human, upon this planet, is to suffer. The essence of humanity is essentially the same between one man and the next. But these essences may be expressed in varying ways. We each have eyes, for example, as well as these large organs that we refer to as our skins. Same things, between us, but in varying ways (hazels, gingers, blues, ‘peachy browns’ [this is what my brother, when he had been a baby, enthusiastically used to say his own skin colour was. To this day, we have no idea where he had picked this description up from]).

To be human is to feel fundamentally incomplete. To suffer, and to feel bored, and to experience moments of happiness, and heart aches and sadnesses. To be susceptible to disease — physical, and mind-related. It is also: to look for warmth, and for nourishment, in mind, body, and soul. And to search for eyes that…understand.

Furthermore, you know where our true homes are? They await us, Insha Allah, in a place that has been designed with our innermost desires and longings in mind. The destination: its fullness, its finality. Finally, after however many years of sustained dynamism, struggle, fragmentation: there shall be stillness, a destination where complete goodness lasts.

Nobody here feels complete. Nobody here feels completely settled, at home, either. It is simply, absolutely, not in our natures to warm to the totality of this Dunya so much.

We each walk atop rugged paths, try to muse at all the little flowers, which are interspersed along the way, and which sprout from between some of these cracks in the mud; we can call it… rugged charm.

We try, somehow, to account for, for example, how Van Gogh’s starry skies were the products of his very humanness: an expression of hope from somewhere within the depths of his depression. Try to paint things like these into alternative truths, use alternative lenses to look at what is there; ones we find satisfactorily cheerful, for us: we viewers. We let the difficult-to-accept things fester, as untouched as possible, beneath polished shells. Admire picture frames and works of art. Touch the surfaces, the canvases, and satisfy ourselves with illusions of, yes, this is all there is.

Most of us lie, or succumb frictionlessly to lies. Lies are often more convenient, can be more effective, easier than truths. And, whether in these ways or in those ones, all of us are suffering.

To be human, human, human. To allow ourselves to be. Breathe. What a concept.

Reality can be difficult to accept. This much, I know, is true. And Islam tells us, and reminds us, of the truths of this transitory experience. People drowning themselves in vanities and amusements; decorating outer shells; competing with, and boasting to, one another. Subtly, strongly, fairly obsessively. And, competing with regard to the collection of wealth and possessions; competing with others through their children, too.

We were created in struggle. This world is but an arena: an abode of trials.

وَلَلْآخِرَةُ خَيْرٌ لَّكَ مِنَ الْأُولَىٰ.

The final, ultimate, lasting life is better for us than this first (present) one.

Your life, without a doubt, dear reader, is a bundle of difficult things (personalised trials) which are complemented by some nicer ones. There are the things that scare you, disappoint you, bring about ache in your heart. And there are the things that soothe you, and hold you, bring you small springs of joy, delight, and comfort.

It is cold outside. But rather than pretending it is not, I suppose we must learn how to dress most appropriately for the weather.

The state of naïveté is known to bring about all of these ‘expectations’, conceptualisations of some sorts of (actually, currently impossible) worldly utopias. But our ‘futures’, when we arrive at them: when time renders them real, for us… they do not necessarily ‘rescue’ us. And neither does anything else ‘worldly’, for that matter…

This life: this one. What is it? I promise you. It was only ever meant to be a journey [back to] home. We are not meant to feel entirely settled, at ease, here. And it is quite impossible to do so, anyway.

The only legitimate, substantial, and lasting means of being ‘rescued’ from the essence of this life (that is, ongoing struggle, and peppered with some elements of ease) is through – you guessed it – death. Acceptance, finding a way to live, while being centred upon reality. And then, we pass on.

Do you feel quite lonely, sometimes? I think the world, right now, is pretty much collectively experiencing a crisis of most things good. Crises of family structures, and of true friendship [arguably, this is a key reason as to why the psychological counselling/talk therapy profession is proliferating in both demand and supply, these days]. And of nutrition, and of faith, and of mental health. And all these crises are inextricably linked to one another, let’s face it.

You are not a factory machine or a computer or a robot, and nor should you be sanded down, your mentality rendered antithetical to the callings, the sayings, the deep-down knowings, of your own soul.

The ways of the ‘modern world’ are centred on such a travesty of… call it, spirituality, and of the things we, truthfully, know to associate with Khayr, goodness.

I know it is often quite hard. And it is quite scary too. You may feel so alone here, and quite alone in thinking along those very lines that you often do. But, no: alone is something that you certainly are not.

So many – the majority, I would say – of human beings living under the Western, liberal, capitalist model are fundamentally in conflict with their own selves. Intrapsychic, or soul-based, conflicts: arguably (according to Ustadh Freud) the very basis of all neuroses.

Doing what you are ‘meant’ to. But… why are you ‘meant’ to?

I guess it must have had all begun with the dawn of popular secularism. An ‘Enlightenment’ period whose premises had been, a) a rejection of God, and b) ensuing cancerous obsessions with growth and gains, for the sake of growth and gains, for the sake of growth, ‘progress’, and… Essentially, much of the world had been left with all these humans with nothing, actually, to live for. And they had all this time on their hands. So: at the crux of all everything, human beings had been left with two real options. Suicide, or creating and religiously adhering to pseudo-truths, cyclical reasoning, false gods to worship. The ‘worshipping’ impulse is, without a doubt, one that is ingrained in our natures.

Leaking buckets.

The capitalist model very much exploits these inclinations. Beliefs on which to stand. That the value of a human being depends on its economic activity; ‘productivity’; how efficient it can be in producing things. Things that are visible and palpable, most usually, somehow. False gods: worshipping materialism. An alternative way to organise one’s time. Associated values: competition, with regard to the fundamentals of the capitalist faith, with one’s peers, in particular. Fuelled, sinisterly, effectively, by these ballooning virtual worlds. The projections of shells; the denying of, or determined reconstructions of, truths.

That is what we are: in denial. Of Truth, of truths, of the truths of ourselves. We accept what we are presented with. That here are some notions of how to exist in the ‘right’ way, here. And if you fail to meet these ridiculous, immoderate, conducive-of-societal-disease expectations, then it is you who is wrong.

Are these societies (urban, hyper-‘productive’, solipsistic, and all the rest of it) not… characterised by neurosis?! We look at people who ‘procrastinate’; who become sick under these sickly models. And we are meant to say that it is they who are defective, ‘wrong’. But no. They are neither: they simply do not, from their cores, blindly subscribe to whatever pseudo-god of capitalism and industry that they have incessantly been propagandised to believe in, worship, devote their existences to. Idols: things that people may worship, but, see, these things have no capacities for seeing, listening, or knowing. These abstract models cannot save you.

Some people spend the entireties of their lives in submission before idols – both physical and abstract ones, imagined. In the end, these things only take and take from you and your time, and they cannot give you anything Khayr in return.

How do other people live? Many people root their lives, almost without question, in the capitalistic model. The meanings of their lives are in pursuit of their career aspirations, and their careers are, whether they will actively admit this or not, what give their lives ‘meaning’, for them. They attach their worth as human beings, fundamentally, to the work that they are able to carry out, and how much of it.

Let’s face it, these ideas, we are very much inculcated with within the state education system. After all, why on Earth wouldn’t we be? These are difficult things to unlearn: they really are.

In your life, dear reader, what is the centrepiece? For some, everything comes back to their professional occupations and such, or to ‘impressing’ others. For others, everything comes back to Divinity, and to submission to God, rather than to abstract gods. Both of these streams of ‘religion’ entail their observers and adherents seeking a sense of self, and self-worth, and meaning, and purpose, a feeling that their time is being spent most fruitfully, through Whom or what they worship. Both streams necessitate some sense of conviction, and belief, in addition to much trust.

You are walking a certain way, towards something. And you will find that some people are walking in the same direction as you. Parallel journeys; arms linked, perhaps.

We need to surround ourselves with good company. Like the young People of the Cave did. They found brotherhood in one another, and shelter away from the heavy toxicities that had been prevalent within their society at that time. We need to re-educate ourselves; with Haqq in mind, as opposed to the invented truths of the current model, which, perhaps, holds the mighty and abstract ‘Economy’ as being the most sacred thing, more sacred than the holism of the human being, more sacred than religion: than submitting to God.

And, yes, it will likely take a whole lot of bravery. Nobody wants to feel like an ‘outcast’, ‘different’ in some strange, alien way. Outsider. And, yet, is this not what, for example, Ibrahim (AS) had to face? A sense of being exiled: because the people of his society, including his own father, were so busy with, so utterly deluded by and caught up in, idol worship. But to them, he had been the deluded one, the madman.

Ibrahim (AS)’s life story, I find very interesting indeed. He had grown up within a family, and a wider society, of idol-worshippers. But, from a very young age, he had been full of questions — ‘philosophical’ ones; would challenge his father, family, his people, and even the Emperor (Nimrood) on their beliefs. A man – a prophet – of sharp wits, and of deep faith and bravery. [Notably, also, Ibrahim (AS) had asked for signs from Allah, so as to strengthen his faith. ‘Asking for signs’ is permissible, in Islam, and Allah (SWT) will respond to you, in phenomenal ways, so long as you are deeply sincere, humble, and patient; so long as you do not speak from a place of arrogance and/or in a manner that shows hastiness.]

These widespread ‘modern’ ideas, after all this time, after all these mass media- and education system-emanating reinforcements: they do necessarily find themselves quite deeply ingrained in our psyches, by now. Produce, and produce. And work, for the sake of work, (for the sake of…) work and be worried about work, in immoderation. For what? Though, like all things when indulged in in immoderation, work becomes unhealthy, bad for us, when not delicately balanced with all of the other things that our souls need: this widespread ideology manages to convince us that if the purpose, meaning, the very crux of your life is not devoted to occupational and economic production, you must be lazy, unaccomplished, and you are fundamentally ‘wrong’.

Is it not scary how, nowadays, we seem to have internalised the idea that if you are not always at least a little ‘stressed out’, that you are not doing things correctly, somehow? The absurd things, that in this world, under these notions of capitalism and modernity, have been normalised! The ‘Protestant Work Ethic’, but on steroids…

The Muslim model, in contrast, in retaliation, then. The value of you is already there. As a fundamental fact of your existence. You require and deserve good, nourishing food. And good, nourishing social relationships. Opportunities to connect with your Creator. The natural world: for healing, too. And whatever work we engage in: it is to benefit our own souls, and other people, and our own lives. We are to work (and eat, and sleep, and even pray) in moderation.

So, at present, what unrealistic expectations do you find yourself holding yourself to? What are the downsides to those lifestyles that you may find yourself working, obsessively, within and towards?

Who, in the world, has got this life thing quite ‘right’?

The ones whose lives are centred, in a stable and steadfast manner, upon Truth, of course. Who are firm; who are able to accept that some people will necessarily think differently, think you are the one consumed within falsehoods. One must have enough Yaqeen (conviction) and enough trust to say goodbye to some things, and to be okay with it.

Oh, and also: we must, somehow, come to fully be at peace with the fact – yes, the fact – that every single individual that exists will have some who likes, approves of, loves, even, him or her. For exactly who they are. And we will each also have at least a handful of people who disapprove. May even dislike us; hate our ways of seeing things, our ways of being. This is okay. Just as you have a right to have your opinions of others, so too do they have a right to make personal judgements of you. Take what is good (Khayr) and balanced. From your beloved friends and from your ardent supporters, and from your critics, too. Disapprovals from others need not result in personal crises, within ourselves, not at all. See, there are usually always at least two ways of looking at things – at elements of different personalities, etc. You are fine, and you bring such beauty to the world, you do.

Some people, you will connect with. Organically, quietly-powerfully, almost effortlessly. And some other people… not so much. And this is okay. There are so many complexities, when it comes to human interactions and relationships, that we must consider. Individual circumstances, daily happenings. And simple incompatibilities, for this reason, or the other. And this need not be a reason to feel stressed or disheartened. These are only well-known and unalterable facts of life.

Here, you will walk. Sometimes solitarily, sometimes with people who are walking the same way as you are. But even when the beings you love feel so very far away, you are never alone. The forces of the soul: these are more powerful, more fascinating, more enduring, than even gravity, you know. Sometimes, undoubtedly, you will slip up and fall. Trip up, find some parts difficult to climb, to overcome. But you will not be alone, and you are also strong – and well-equipped – enough to get through this.

Here, there will be rainy days spent indoors. There will be cups of tea and intoxicated-with-laughter moments galore. Chills and surprises, comfortingly charming little things.

As for our day-to-day, moment-to-moment, experiential realities, a wise friend of mine once (i.e., earlier today) said:

“There is no ‘right’ way to live. All we can do is make the most of what we have in the moment, do what seems the most natural in that moment, and continue to live”.

I know the past is important. And so, too is the future. One has shaped you; has been your reality. The other is an unknown that you are forever walking into. Both are, at least somewhat, significant. But to behave in real terms: we must behave as though this moment is all there is. This is (temporal) truth, for us, right now. Look around: this is your life.

And how much comfort and joy I find in the fact that, Subhan Allah, I am not alone. My ‘people’ are here, though they may not always be most physically proximate. Gorgeous beings with whom to have interesting, wisdom-seeking conversations; who, by simple virtue of their beautiful characters, remind me of Haqq. And to fantasise about Korean chicken with. To share the intricacies of these days of ours with: the goodness, the difficulties, awkwardnesses, and all the rest of it. And to pray beside. [After all, friends who pray together, stay together.] We find we are walking the same way.

When your feet become blistered, and when walking starts to hurt,

Remember, remember, the graceful tenacity of the birds:

How they swoop and loop and fly their own flights, one beside the other,

Find a fellow bird, or two, flying the same way as you are; call this man your brother.

And in a moment – however long this may take – or two,

The aureate sun, morning light, will surely break through.

Welcome to Dunya. Abandon hope[fully] all ye who enter here. This first world of ours is difficult; it is not [ever] without its frictions. But, comfortingly, in this Dunya at least, to be without frictions — to be completely ‘polished’ and ‘smooth’ — is also to be quite… character-less. Bored, and boring. On these journeys of ours, we have quite come to love the things of ‘rugged charm’, have we not?

.إِنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا

With difficulty, there is also ease. And so may we relax, dear reader, and may we lean into what is True.

(Oh, and know that nobody — nobody at all — makes it out of this place alive...)

“My prayer, my sacrifices, my living and dying are all for the Lord of the universe”

— Surah An’am, Holy Qur’an

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

To Feel Seen, and Smiled At

I fear what other people may be thinking of me. I am almost certain that so too, do you. It is in our nature, in our design, to want to seek acceptance and approval from people: from authority figures, from people we would like to befriend. And we want to feel, on some deep psychological level, safe and sound, truly at home, and not in any way rejected or attacked; we want to feel like we belong. 

Deeper than this, we do not merely seek to be ‘tolerated’, nor even merely ‘accepted’. But appreciated, celebrated. We seek true validation. And nobody at all really wants to feel cast out; alienated.

We tend to look for validation specifically from people whom we perceive to have power. Professional, or social. Maybe they have certain traits that we may, ourselves, desire. For one reason or another, we find ourselves trusting them, as well as their judgements.

 

From the very first days of our existences outside of the womb, what we know to first seek is a validating type of eye contact: to feel seen, really seen, and to feel loved for being. A look, and a smile. A “welcome to the world. You are welcome here, truly.

 

“I see you, and I love you.”

 

And the ways in which we are mirrored back: these little messages continually tell us who we are. This is especially critical in the first seven years of our lives, for this is when the cruxes of our personalities are formed, [what ought to be] a delicate to-and-fro of “this is me,” and, “yes, this is you”. And it is the job of a child’s caregivers to continually make the child feel seen, and known, held, praised, and encouraged.

Such instinctual psychological desires do not just up and leave us, after these particular definitive years of ours, though; they are here with us, throughout our lives. At school, within our peer groups, at work — we find ourselves forever in pursuit of the eye-and-smile thing.

“You are truly seen,” it tells us. “And truly appreciated.” 

Relax. Without any sort of need to impress or overcompensate. Nor to always come across as being especially funny, or smart, or anything else. Just as you are: you are worthy of love.

But what if, whether in infancy or at some crucial point thereafter, we did not feel seen (i.e. seen in truth, and not merely via the masks we may have learnt to wear, in order to attempt to simulate that essential validating experience we so sought) and what if we did not feel smiled-at, appreciated, cherished?

One of my little cousins, for example, is really rather awesome. She likes to write her own songs, uses gifted makeup sets so as to paint on paper, plays football competitively. She is a gorgeous little creature (Masha Allah) and, as aforesaid, I think she is awesome. But she has all these strong doubts about herself. Thinks herself to be, among other things, ‘inadequate’ as a girl.

“I don’t want to be ‘unique’. Unique means weird.

“Well, I think it means singular and extraordinary!”

Cole Mackenzie and Anne, Anne with an E

Sometimes she finds she is excluded from certain little friendship groups. On account of being who and how she is, apparently. When I try to remind her of the beauty of this ‘who and how she is’, she is able to remember the good of herself momentarily, but then forgets, in the faces of those strong oppositional forces.

How difficult it is to build a building: brick-by-brick. How comparatively easy it is to knock the entire thing down. 

When one feels seen, yet not at all smiled at: this can prove to be a rather terrifying ordeal indeed. Put under a spotlight, feeling mortified and exposed, prodded and gawked at. Like you are a lab rat, some strange creature. Undeserving. Not belonging; social death.

Or, of course, on the flip-side, one may find oneself feeling smiled at, and yet, not truly seen. When one hides the truths of oneself, defensively, for acceptance, maybe; for fear of not being approved of. The smiles themselves: we may find that they do not fulfil. They can feel rather inauthentic… because it is not truly you that is being smiled at, is it?

Finally, rather tragically, one may come to find oneself in a state of feeling neither seen, nor smiled at. Whereby one’s truths are hidden, out of fear of not being accepted by others. Whereby masks are not worn, either. It is like such people have come to accept utter defeat; are now shrouded in a state of feeling completely societally rejected, and subsequently quite hopeless, fearing always floating, never belonging. But I think they are still there, somewhere. Our true/potential selves do not simply die while we ourselves remain alive: they can get unfavourably covered up for a while, sure. Or neglected, or hindered. But they are never lost. And, in due time, and with the love and support of the right people for us, oh how we find we can grow! 

Children (and indeed we, us over-aged children) need to be reminded, time and time again, of who we are, from the perspective of those who truly love us [us. Not whom they want us to be!] and whom we, in return, also love. That ‘to-and-fro’ thing, again. And, over and over again. Because, (when it concerns qualities that are not distinctively morally wrong) there are always at least two ways of looking at things.

“Too quiet”, for instance, can be exchanged for “contemplative”: a brilliant quality to have, actually. “Weird” can be swapped for “spirited”. “Shy” can be rephrased as “endearing”.

And, on matters concerning physical appearance, no baby is born feeling that he or she is “ugly”. But often, all it takes for a child to suddenly feel bad about one or more of their qualities is… a single comment.

“Different isn’t bad. It’s just not the same.

— Anne with an E

From back when I had been the same age as the aforementioned cousin of mine, I remember how much the tiniest comments would affect me. For example, an aunt of mine had taught me to think that having ‘baby hairs’ was a bad thing. So, at home, I tried exceedingly hard to scrub it all off. But now I know that many people consider these baby hairs to be a positive and desirable thing to have. A similar occurrence, concerning my slightly-upturned nose. A relative of mine teased me about it, calling it a “pig nose”. So I would exert myself to push my nose downwards, in the hope that it would become permanently like this, someday. But, now I know that many consider upturned noses to be “cute”, actually.

A final example, concerning the colour of my skin. As a very young child, my skin had been very fair. And, as a result of some deeply colourist South Asian standards, I had been complimented for this, quite a lot. An aunt of mine even made jokes about wanting to swap her own daughter for me, since I had been fairer than my cousin.

[You know, it is not uncommon for people to comment, as soon as a child is born, on the colour of his or her skin: on how (apparently, consequently) ‘pretty’ or ‘ugly’ the baby is, or will turn out to be. And these attitudes are quite disgusting.]

Anyway, I did not care much for the fact that my skin colour had been granted so much value in the eyes of certain relatives of mine. I liked to play outside in the sun; let my skin turn browner. A particular relative of mine started to insult me, calling me “dirt-coloured”, and treating me differently. But, I did not care. I told her that she, by contrast, was fair, just like bacteria, and just like the bottom of my feet.

A bit savage, I know. But I figured I did not need nor want the approval and acceptance of a person who wanted to determine the value of a child by how fair or dark their skin was. This was not a value that I had aspired towards: so why should the disapproval of someone with such a value have mattered, to me? I guess I chose to give this particular person less power in my eyes. Who was she, to determine any ‘truths’ about me, anyway?

No, I did not feel like I ‘belonged’, with a person like her. But, nor did I want to: the apparent criteria that would have been necessary for this were simply not worth it!

Personality-based features (again, when they are not rooted in immorality), and appearance-based ones: one may find that there are always different perspectives that one can choose to have, on any given thing. Positive, or neutral, or bad. Being tall: desirable to some; a neutral thing to be, for others. And an awful thing to be, in the perspectives of some. Being bookish: desirable, neutral, or terrible.

See, on the level of people, there are as many distinctive ‘truths’ as there are pairs of eyes! And, different eyes [can choose to] see different ‘truths’, about the very same thing: whether this be concerning the entirety of a person, or about certain isolated features of theirs. Brown skin. Or ginger hair. Freckles, chubby cheeks, mono-lid eyes. They can be seen, and are seen, by different groups of people, as being good, or neutral, or ‘bad‘. Now which group, of the three, would it be best for you to agree with, when it comes to you and your attributes?

You might find you are “too religious,” for some. Perfectly so, for others. “Too boisterous,” for some. Brilliantly so, for others. “Too into […] stamp-collecting [?],” for some. And splendidly so, for others. And there will always, always, always be some people on this Earth who will deeply approve of you, as well as some people who will really not. 

The ones who will really see you, and therefore love you… I hope they are the friends that you will have, through life. I hope they know to honour you, and you, them. And your respective colours. And how the jigsaw pieces might fit together. I hope the soil nurtures your growth and theirs, really and truly.

Anyway, what certain people say, and the ‘standards’ that are decided as a result of these opinions: these are not the ‘gatekeepers’ of Truth. Even when it comes to things like beauty standards: do you not see how these fashions ebb and flow, and change, and what they are, altogether, in light of? Quite frivolous, for the most part. Sometimes fleeting, often unsubstantial.

If you ever find yourself having been insulted for a trait or feature that you may have, I challenge you to try to immediately remind yourself that “there is another way of looking at this“. Whatever they may be saying, there is another thing that can be said, regarding the very same thing: a more positive outlook. Now, just what could this be?

Who had taught you to think the bad things you might think of yourself, currently? And, why should they have the authority to be able to make such a decision, concerning you? Why should you have to believe them?

I promise you: where there is a choice to see beauty, and when you then choose to see it, beauty grows. In you, and in others.

You are a brilliant pear tree; why should I complain about your ‘failure’ to produce apples? You are a gorgeous wintry sun; who am I to expect, from you, heat? Or, you are a sunflower. Why ought I to be disappointed to find that your petals are not red and pleated?

Be whom you are, my friend. And bloom from whom you are. You will have your ‘right’ ones who notice and appreciate; you will have your ‘not-so-right’ ones who find they cannot do so. And this is okay, for you are you, and they are they. There is no need to meet everybody’s seeming ‘expectations’ of you: no, for you may just completely lose yourself in the process.

We all, from the places of our very cores, seek to be smiled at, after being seen. And, there is no substitute for real (love-based) connections, which are rooted in the very aforesaid phenomenon. Some people might seek seen-ness and smiles from others, through avenues such as fame. But no, no. Mere popularity is no substitute for the real stuff: it is no substitute at all.

 

Just whose validation is it that you seek, and why? And whose disapproval do you fear so much, and why? 

 

Now, if you are able to do so, dear friend, I encourage you to look into a mirror: any mirror. And right into your own eyes. It might feel quite strange and intense at first, but… be sure to soften your gaze a little. There. I hope you feel seen now. And now, smile. A most sincere and welcoming smile. Feel seen, and in a most accepting, appreciative, supportive way. Even if some of the people around you are unable to do the same: herein might just lie the first step. Being on one’s own side, while standing on the other side of the mirror. And then, simply choosing to focus on what is good and true. 

“It’s not what the world holds for you.

It’s what you bring to it.”

— Anne with an E

Somehow, one must try to root oneself in soil that will help one to grow; to see others, too, and to smile upon their existences, also. To be with people who love you; to love them right back. To feel connected; to want to always be able to look into their eyes; to miss their smiles when they are not there. To discover more about them and their lives; more things to smile for, and to support.

To really feel seen, and to also sincerely feel smiled at. Is this not the basis of all human love? 

And one must give out this willingness to try to understand, and to appreciate, others, with the sincere hope that you, too are deserving of such treatment. Whether this is granted to you from the hearts of many, or solely from the hearts of a few. 

The greatest thing one can aspire to in life is to love, and to then be loved, too. 

 


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

For Wapping

Wapping, a small former parish town in East London, is a place that truly embodies a ‘tale of two cities’. The district begins at the riverbank, where muddied but gleaming Thames water crashes upon small broken-pottery-laden shores. The Met Police Marine Unit is situated there, along with some other small quirks and gems. And Wapping ends where village-like serenity does: the Highway, where trucks, Lamborghinis, and Mercedes-drivers (the latter of which are presumably on their way to their jobs in Canary Wharf and the City) all coalesce.

What I like about Wapping is that it is truly a liminal place. Always moving, yet timeless, caught between times. A village trapped in the midst of a city. Quaint is the best word for it, I think.

Take a walk through Wapping, and you take a walk through a living history book or a museum. This is, I think, as preserved as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London gets, really. The gorgeous and majestic Tower of London on one side, looming over the road to Tower Bridge.

Walk too far one way, and you get to Peckham. A bustling place, full of energy, in its own right, but simply not comparable to this place. Walk too far the other way, and you get to that rather unfortunate little place that is known as Shadwell… and then, Whitechapel. These places have their good parts, too, don’t get me wrong. But (you guessed it.) they are just not Wapping. 

How unique this place is, and how grateful I am to have grown up here. The other day, a friend of mine told me that she had come here for a visit – specifically, she went to the marina part, where chic little cafes overlook a substantial collection of yachts. The ‘Dickens’ Inn’ is here too, a former brewery dating back to the 18th Century.

The teeming waterside life of Wapping’s former days actually inspired some of Charles Dickens’ writing: he used to come here sometimes, as a child. The workhouses, the docks, the warehouses (which have now all been redeveloped, turned into ridiculously expensive living spaces). The way the lazy summer sun hits these still-cobbled streets. The quaint little pubs, the riverside parks. There is no place I have ever been to that is quite like Wapping.

Wapping Lane: a post office, a pharmacy, a bakery, a greengrocer’s, a butcher’s. A fish and chip shop. A gambling shop, too (rather unfavourably, in my own opinion). A few churches, and my former neighbour – the priest – who laments at the noisiness of the little boys who play upstairs, and at the growing presence of these “thugs” who he says will be borne from the nascent council flats nearby. Then, another pub, and a small café (one of those deliberately vintage-looking ones that charge extortionate prices for almond-based coffee, frequented by all those yoga mums, ‘babyccino’ buyers and and whatnot. But still, I love it).

It is nice that one can set foot into Shadwell, and into Central London, from nucleus Wapping. But, thankfully, there is always this place – peace without boredom, city without too much of it – to return to.

On one side dwell and play the truly wealthy. The yacht-owners, the ones who frequent all these dainty riverside restaurants. Their homes have concierge offices; they are tall and made of glass. The fountains and private rose gardens probably exist primarily to be enjoyed by them, but it’s nice that anyone who passes by can enjoy the view, too.

On the other side, the somewhat less wealthy. The Cockney accents. “‘Ello love!” “You aw’ight babe?” The drunk man who is always fixing something in his flat. The council homes, rows of little ones, and all their washing lines. The lovely old lady who is forever outside, tending to her plants, and feeding the birds. Occasionally, a conversation betwixt two – maybe about the weather, or an angrier one about how certain dog owners do not clean up after their dogs, or about the price of bread at our local bakery.

Dame Helen Mirren lives here. So does Rio Ferdinand. Graham Norton, too: I see him fairly often, actually, at Waitrose.

There are the white working-class people (the ones who chose to remain here, during those periods of ‘White Flight’), and there are all these Bengali ones. There are the sort of ‘hipster’-y people who are increasingly moving in: all these young-ish professionals who live alone; the under-bridge warehouses that have been converted into food places. There used to be a thriving Jewish community here in the East End, too. Here was where the Battle of Cable Street had taken place, years and years ago.

Someday everything that is taking place here right now will be a thing of ‘years and years ago’, too.

And I think I like taking my place, here in the middle of things. It allows one to walk this way, and then that. And you belong to all of it, but you belong to none of it at the same time. There are no obligations; you find yourself untied to anything at all. And, yet, there you are, firmly rooted in the actual midst of things. Everything unfolds right before you. The little wooden bridge that takes you from one side of the canal to the other [the one that used to always be impossibly slippery during the colder months!]

Good things come from balances, from middles. And here Wapping is, you see: caught right in the middle of things.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

On Beauty

The human woman is a thing of beauty. This is, without question, how she has been designed and made: beautiful. From her eyelashes to her voice, and to the soul that rests between them, the human female is different to the human male. Both, in general, have differing essences, and each are attracted to differing things, in the other.

In this article, I want to talk about beauty standards. I may also touch on the topics of body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and the like. I want for this article to encapsulate my indignation towards, for instance, the fact that some of the most beautiful women I know think themselves to be hideous; I think current popular conceptions of ‘beauty’ are symptomatic of, well… a world gone mad, taken to deceit, superficiality, and shallowness, among other things.

One of my little cousins, I tell her, she does not need to worry: she is gorgeous how she is, Masha Allah! But she says, no, she is not. Why, I ask? Because, as she tells me, she does not look like her, and she points to a girl she is watching on Tik-Tok, whose face is laden with makeup, whose features are accentuated through the use of certain poses and filters.

The ‘Instagram face’. This is an important concept in today’s world, so it would seem.

I so wish everybody could just know how beautiful they are. A few months ago, I carried out that survey thing, for which the fourth question was about people’s main struggles and insecurities. Everybody responded to this with, looks: they struggle with accepting and appreciating how they look, and this actually holds them back, they find, in other areas of life. People find themselves ugly; want to do away with certain features of theirs, acquire new ones.

What a world we live in, huh? Our notions of beauty are so distorted. This ‘Instagram face’, this template that begins with European features, takes from ‘ethnic ones’, merges them together to create the notorious almost-bionic template that plasters our social media feeds these days. My issue with the culture that this has been fostered by (and then, in turn, fosters) is that we now have humans who are disgusted by some of the baseline stuff of being human: who spend hours hating their own reflections, who look beauty right in the eye each day (when they look into a mirror) but who cannot at all recognise it for what it is.

The media we consume on a daily basis undoubtedly has a massive impact on the ways in which we come to see things. It is all quite interconnected, too: how addictive these platforms are, how much of its content we consume each day (often quite ‘mindlessly’. But it is always having an effect on our minds…), advertising, the cosmetic industry…

The truth is, looks do matter. Of course they do. But it gets awfully political, if you think about it enough: how the ones with the most power, have the power to truly influence how we view things. Like beauty. The thing about beauty is, it is meant to be indicative of goodness [and, I would argue, of Truth. We tend to see things that are unified, proportionate, and harmonious, as being beautiful. I think this points us towards a supreme wisdom, a Oneness. Allah].

An envelope, and then you open it, and there is goodness to be found. But as soon as we come to believe that only some women (i.e. those with European features, lightly infused with more ‘exotic’ and ethnic ones) are truly beautiful, we are also allowing ourselves to believe that they, by nature, hold unique goodness within them. Such ideas – pertaining to both the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ – are strongly linked to European colonial ideas. That white women, for example, are more ‘feminine’ and ‘angelic’ than other ones. [And that white men are more civilised and intelligent than other – the more ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ – ones]. Then, these notions of what constitutes seeming ‘angelic’, and how these have, over time, developed into modern conceptualisations of the infantile woman, who is at once childishly adorable, ‘angelic’, and very sexually fecund… doesn’t it all make you a little uncomfortable?

The human Fitrah does ‘naturally’ recognise beauty. Most human beings absolutely love ‘nature’. It is visually, aurally, atmospherically beautiful. But our Fitrahs can be, and very often are, affected by environmental factors. By the media, for example: what we cognitively consume, and just how much of it. These things that can acquire power over you, a hold on you, can in turn deeply influence your thoughts and beliefs.

I wish humanity would just accept its own humanity. I wish we would stop worshipping plastic notions; stop allowing ourselves to be fooled so. Whenever I come across pictures (e.g. at museums) from the past, of people simply having fun, and while looking unashamedly human, I think about the ways of now. How we dress ourselves up so much, to go just about anywhere, and how hyper-aware we can tend to be, of our own physicality.

Sadly, this hyper-awareness stops a lot of people from playing. From having pure, unbridled fun. And from bearing witness to their own inherent beauty. It makes people compare themselves (to heavily engineered images) and then come to consider themselves as being ‘ugly’. It motivates people to go on a lot of these unhealthy ‘diets’, to think about getting nose jobs, bodily implants, and more.

How did we get to this point, at which normal human faces are seen as abnormal? Where, if a woman walks out without makeup, she looks ‘sickly’ and un-groomed.  If she wears ‘subtle’ makeup, little girls come to think that this is how they ought to look without makeup [this is what the ‘no makeup makeup look’ does, in truth].

Nobody is born ‘ugly’, and nobody is born seeing themselves this way. In fact, it goes against the inclinations of the human Fitrah, to see ‘ordinary’ humans as being ‘ugly’. This would be tantamount to denying the beauty within walking definitions of beauty!

I reckon it began with makeup. With the arrival of new potential, for women with ‘ordinary’ faces to look special, ‘exotic’ and sexy: to accentuate their features with the use of substances that blacken and bronze and ‘beautify’. Interestingly, the basis of all these makeup products is the promise of an ‘ethnic’ look, a ‘sultry’ and ‘exotic’ one. With mascara, white women could now darken and elongate their eyelashes. With bronzer, they could achieve that ‘sun-kissed’ look. Lip-liner allowed them to achieve the full-lip look. Other various cosmetic powders and liquids allow for skin to look ‘flawless’, glowing. But women who are South Asian, black, Latina, and Arab (generally) naturally have these features already. So where do they fit in, in terms of how the global cosmetics industry direct their advertising and relevance?

To put it simply, white women started to want these ‘exotic’ ethnic features. They were seen, undoubtedly, as being fascinating, and (thus) ‘sexy’. But some ‘exotic’ features had been left behind, in the conceptualisation of this model: uni-brows, for example [and thick eyebrows, too. These only became ‘fashionable’ far later]. And hooked noses, and certain face shapes, among other things. So, it is almost as though a makeup template for white women had been created deeply inspired by certain ‘ethnic’ looks and features, but then, in turn, ‘ethnic’ women took from the new European-with-hints-of-‘exoticism’ model.

And so, lots of white women rushed to get lip fillers, while lots of black women rushed to acquire straighter hair. Lots of Arab women rushed to get nose jobs. Lots of South Asian women rushed to lighten their skin.

See, the entire cosmetic industry peddles the idea that no, you are never ‘enough’, never quite done yet. You do not yet look like the ‘models’ we have created. So keep going, keep buying, keep ‘improving’. 

And yes, I think ‘celebrity culture’ has played a notable role in all of this. From the beginnings of Hollywood, to the ways of things now, this culture has always relied on some people being presented as being extraordinary, very special, worthy of much popular attention. They had to be set apart from everybody else: talent-wise, and, of course, ‘beauty’-wise.

But, gradually, the cosmetics that only the rich and famous had access to became increasingly accessible to the rest of the public. And, with this ‘celebrity culture’ mentality in mind, of course, people wanted to emulate whom they had been made to perceive as being the ‘successful’. And thus, I think, was birthed these ideas of the most non-human-seeming human things being the most attractive ones. Terrifying, really.

Hooked noses and pointed chins, for example, are not objectively ‘ugly’. And nor are rounded faces, or thinner lips, stretch marks, tummy rolls, or whatever else.

I do think it is a very human, ‘okay’ thing to want to be beautiful. In general, women in particular have innate desires to be beautiful (on the inside, and the ‘out’), while men tend to obtain the majority of their self-esteem from how ‘strong’ they are (both on the physical, and inward, emotional level). But I think our paradigms of beauty ought to be more ‘from us’. Beginning with us, and ending, for the most part, with us: with the beautiful features and things that Allah has given us, already. The goal, perhaps, ought to just be: being as healthy as we can be. Developing according to our own natures (and this should be true, for us, on both the physical level, and the mental ones).

Hey, did Aphrodite not have tummy rolls? She is, then, perhaps more human than most of us today will, unfortunately, allow ourselves to be.

I worry for my little cousins, I really do. In fact, I worry for every woman – especially the younger ones – who finds herself alive, right now, in this world of ours. I want for beautiful people to know that they are beautiful, even where their faces do not fit with the whole Instagram cut-out template.

If I ever have a daughter, I hope I can teach her how to stand before herself and bear witness to the beauty that is inherent in her, a gift from God. I know I would want to protect her from these never-ending streams of media that may seek to tell her that, in terms of beauty, she is lesser than what she, in truth, is.

Dear reader, I want you to know how beautiful you are. So, for today at least, I challenge you to exchange those critical lenses through which you may look at yourself in the mirror, for ones of appreciation. When you actively look for the beauty that (I promise you) is already there, you will surely come to see it, Subhan Allah. Nobody else in the world has the beauty that only you do.

And why would you ever want to look like anybody else?


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

The Allostatic Curve

This article has been written at the request of a certain young lady who goes by the name of Tasnim. Therefore, this article is dedicated to a certain young lady who is called…Tasnim. 

 

Stress. That feeling. The biological push, an instinctual thing that urges us to get something done about something. Fight, flight, or freeze.

‘Stress’ is not a bad thing in and of itself. It can be an excellent motivational force, when experienced in moderation. Aside from urgent biological threats (e.g. the intense ‘stress’ we may feel when some threat of physical attack looms before us) we tend to stress about things we care about.

A drive to get things done, always towards some end goal, towards some overarching philosophy. You might experience some stress when thinking about your to-do list. “I need to get these tasks done. Send this email. Check this essay.” Why? “Because the deadlines are coming up. I don’t want to be scolded by my teacher.” Why? “Because I care about my education. It adds some meaning to my life; it is a part of me, and a part that I fear losing.” 

‘Eustress’ (‘good’ stress) is, well, good. Without it, we probably would not do much at all. We would not care about doing things. With eustress (see: the left side of the given curve – a theoretical curve that shows stress that is good; where this peaks; then, where it falls – where the stress becomes more harmful than ‘good’) we are driven to carry out the work-related tasks we need to complete [we care about doing well, about not losing our jobs, about maintaining our social reputations and our self-expectations] and we are also motivated to, for example, pray on time, feed babies on time, and to do things for the people we love.

In our heads, we think about the potential rewards of doing certain things, and about potential negative reinforcements and punishments if we fail to do them. The stress, I believe, comes mostly from the latter. And also from the internal and self-inflicted punishment that may arise, if we end up missing out on the rewards, or if we end up losing certain things – like our jobs, or our statuses, or beloved elements of our identities.

The allostatic curve is probably quite an important thing to bear in mind. It is also probably a very subjective thing: some people work better than others do when under lots of stress. What is represented by the ‘optimum point’ on one person’s curve may be different to that of another person.

And, beyond our optimum points, we can quickly descend into harmful stress: the type that may, for example, result in sleeplessness, psychosomatic pains, and more. The key difference is that eustress tends to result in action and ensuing satisfaction from this action. ‘Bad stress’ – after the optimal point – tends to result in inaction. Worrying so much, for example, that suddenly, stress ends up doing the opposite of what its ‘job’, so to speak, is to do.

Threat, stress, action, resultBut, sometimes, there are no obvious courses of action to take, against certain perceived threats. This is when stress can balloon, multiply; it has nowhere to go, unfortunately. Nowhere to go but everywhere inside of your mind. Somehow, we need to teach ourselves to mentally minimise these particular ‘threats’ – the more abstract ones.

Moreover, I do not think that stress is an inherently bad thing – again, when experienced in moderation – but I do prefer it when there is also a good helping of that other sort of motivational force. Call it passion, maybe. Stress may make us worry about letting a friend down when they have tasked us with something, because we do not want to disappoint them; we do not want to compromise the friendship in any way. But that other type [passion?] makes us joyfully run towards doing certain things, because we cannot wait to see the smile on their face when we do this thing for them. Yes, stress is about the avoidance of negative reinforcements, driven by thoughts of negativity. Passion is about positive reinforcements – about a drive towards gaining something, maybe a new lovely experience.

Doing things towards love and towards a want to be appreciated: I do not think these forces count as being ‘stress’-based ones. Also: simply enjoying the process. Stress may drive you towards completing work-based tasks and such [which is great when in moderation – if it helps you to get the required things done, on time, and if it prevents all those potential negative consequences from eventuating]. But passion will make you enjoy the process, too!

Furthermore, I came across an interesting idea [I forget where I came across it, though, as I tend to do] that general considerations concerning the allostatic curve ought to be reflected in one’s day. The calm part in the morning, some eustress – preparing you, building up, for an optimum point. This might be during midday, when we should aim to be the most productive. And then, wind down time. It is certainly a bad idea, for instance, to put pressure on oneself to experience one’s optimal performance immediately, right at the start of one’s day, or right before one intends to go to sleep…

So, the allostatic curve then. A wonderful idea, and something that is very useful to think about, especially right now, in a busy world driven, so it would seem, by freneticism and stress. The health component, and the passion one, ought to be deeply considered, too.


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

Fences and Flowers

I have a weird thing about, an affinity for – perhaps an obsession with – lists. I seem to have longings, in me, to create lists on every topic. Favourite movies, cool places to travel to, things to pack in my bag whenever I go on these adventures. I generate numerous lists of numerous things. I suppose they (are meant to) give me a sense of control over my life. I also have a list of the names of my ‘loved ones’. Of course, love and good friendships tend to be (and should be) fairly organic affairs. However, in my mind’s own view at least, keeping lists of such things grants me  a sense of structure; ensures that I will not accidentally forget to, say, keep in touch with those who are truly worth keeping in touch with.

At times I wonder if my list-making tendencies are a tad unhealthy. They certainly do function, in my life, as tools of stress relief. But then I also worry about forgetting to add important things to my lists; I worry about including too many things. What truly motivates me to write them up in the first place? Why are sensations of stress so effective in driving me to put pen to paper and list things in such a way?

I am so afraid of forgetting important things. Like who I am, and how ‘best to live my life’. I am afraid (even though I know that a human being cannot be concisely defined through things like sentences and lists) of being wholly undefined, amorphous, personality-wise.

I love that I am ‘naturally inclined’ towards certain things; I love being driven by passion and inspiration. And maybe it is because I have been, for so long, such an ardent lover of writing, but I almost feel like things are not real until they are written down. If left unwritten, things just float around aimlessly in the air. They disappear; we rely on our own memory functions to preserve any of their realness.

I do seem to tend to underestimate the sheer brilliance of the human capacity to remember things. But I do also know that writing things down has its own unique benefits. For instance, I find I experience a particular sense of joy whenever I come across an old journal of mine from a few years back. In them, I have recorded many of the minute details of what my life looked like back then – things that had been hidden somewhere in the recesses of my mind, deemed unimportant by it, until I revisited those words, which I had formerly immortalised on paper.

I do long for my life to be governed by certain systems, things that can be written down, and which I can hold myself accountable to and for. But – and this has been a huge point of inner conflict for me – I am also so very drawn to the opposite of this ideal life governed by systems, and by efficiency, and by never forgetting who I am and the habits that make ‘me’, me. I love the concept of adventure, and of spontaneity, and of dynamism, and of stories that I live through, which I could never have been able to foretell.

The lists and structures I have in place (which I have been trying to reify, though their contents do seem to change rather often) will likely continue to be the source of much stress relief, efficiency, and perceived virtue via discipline and ritual, for me. But they will not – can not – define my experiences of life. I might be able to use lists to generate ideas about what I, say, hope to do when I am older. But these lists and structures will never be able to account for the complex completeness of my experiences. I might be able to write down the names of the countries I hope to visit, for example, but I will never be able to write detailed plans about the actual human experiences I will have in those places, if I even end up visiting them at all.

I cannot leave everything to ‘chance’ and to the inclinations of my own whims. I fear the unknown. I fear utter chaos and goal-lessness; I fear completely ‘not knowing’ – both about what will happen, and about who I am.

But I cannot account for all of it; I cannot predict things, nor can I control everything. My lists are just skeletons, in truth. They might provide guidelines, outlines, for how I do things, and for how my days might be planned. But the flesh of these occurrences and days will be determined by many other factors.

Maybe it is time for me to get over this seemingly ingrained need to ‘write everything down’. I am fond of the notion of focusing on ‘this day’s daily bread’. Eating enough for today, doing enough ‘work’ for today, nurturing my soul enough for today. I must stop thinking of life as a series of things attained, or places travelled to, or books read, or whatnot. Ultimately, I only have this day to reasonably think about: life is a series of days – of todays. In a single day, I may be able to cook and eat a delicious meal; read two chapters of a good book; sleep well. As long as an activity that is good for me gets done, it is okay if it does not stem, say, from the criteria of any list, or if it does not contribute to the generation of yet another one.

Sigh. ‘To-do’ lists are important and are usually very useful, yes. But sometimes I would appear to magnify their importance, in my mind, a little too much. The value of the entirety of a day is not to be measured by how many specific predetermined activities I managed to complete. It is contingent on a combination of factors. Did I sleep well, did I eat well? Did I pray on time and with due concentration? Did I manage to go for a nice walk or something? It is true that school-related to-dos do always seem to loom on the anticipated dawn of a new day. I do need to get those things done. But to act as though my life is to just be a series of lists – of anything – would be extremely unfair to (the complex completeness of) my own humanity.

But, as afore-implied, there is some significant virtue to be found in moderate, well-chosen lists and structures – routines and rituals and the like. They help to govern things; they can be like fences, assisting us with the limitation of some negative habits, and with the encouragement of useful and good ones (through discipline, where our own inclinations and whims are known to fail us). But they are just fences: whichever flowers bloom amid them must be celebrated, somehow, too. These are the tokens of the soulful part of humanity, a thing of passions and inspiration.

I do need my fences, but not too many, and not to the detriment of beauty. And I yearn to also have my flowers – not hindered by the fences, but helped by them, and indeed virtuously contained by them.

Okay, 03:30 AM rant over. Fajr time. Adios!


Sadia Ahmed, 2020 

Nebulae

I am in awe of my Creators’ creations. Pictures taken by the Hubble Telescope: nebulae, glorious, majestic, terrifying, and whose sizes are far too much for the human mind to wrap itself around. It is all so very dizzying: the moon in orbit around this gorgeous planet of ours, where life can spring into fruition with the aid of a bit of sunlight and water. Galactic purples, universal darknesses, sunflower-y yellows. Swathes of water, oceans of blood. From nothingness, two cells are brought forth from male and from female. Dualities and contrasts, jigsaw pieces. Earth encircles sun – and we call this a year. A few days later, a heart begins to beat. 60 to 100 beats per minute, perfectly accommodated by womb, electricity sent rushing through muscles, arms flexed. Reflex actions, laughter. And what on earth is Time? What’s in a number?

Everything that exists is perceived by us, via these magnificent minds of ours. They represent reality, for us, in terms of language and visuals. But what about all that is simply beyond us? What do we know that we are simply unable to know, from our rather human points of view?

Dark matter, somatic cells, fireflies. The way the leaves sprout green, grow, become mustard, auburn, crimson. Words are a thing of wonder and beauty too: products of these, our minds. It is so very dizzying, bewildering, all of it. The human eye, perception, thought. The ability to remind your best friend that you love her; memory faculties that facilitate the storage of certain scents and sounds, somewhere up in that brain of yours [but where?]. Feeling the flickers of fire upon your palm; they certainly inspire something deep within you. Incandescence – what a beautiful word. Pardon me for sounding like a Romantic, here, but look at it, all of it. Look at you, all of you, in the mirror: symmetry, organs functioning in such harmony. Eyelashes that are of one length, the hairs upon your head that are of another. A child learning to pronounce her own name, the development of baby babbles into eloquence. A mushroom rising somewhere deep within damp woodland, the majesty of a blue whale beneath a rocking wooden boat. The names we are given, and the vocal propensities we have to utter them, which follow us through all of it: through microscope lenses, as we peer into the happenings of bacteria; through pen ink spilling over journal paper. Telescopes gazing upwards, inspiring awe. Forehead down on prayer mat, in humility, awe, and submission, to Al-Khaliq (the Creator), Al-Baari’, the Unmoved Mover. The master, the owner, the maker of everything. See, nothing moves without first being moved; things are not this harmonious, functional, as a result of ‘nothing’, nor as a result of ‘chance’. Undoubtedly, all praise and thanks are to Him, Lord of the Worlds.


Sadia Ahmed, 2020