Short Story: Johnson

I have four guests coming around for dinner later today. One, two, three, four. Susan from work, Matilde from work, Hassan from work, Hassan’s wife, who isn’t from work, but whom I wanted to thank for all her Pakoras and what-have-yous with… whatever food we’re serving for them today.

The house needs to look perfect. Not IKEA-showroom ‘perfect’ – no, no, that won’t do – but it must seem quite so nonetheless.  I need to make it known that we – Karen and I – are not like those couples who obsessively clean and bleach things down. We do like to let our children play. They can get their crayons out sometimes; once, I even let them use watercolour paints in the living room. Yes, they should be very grateful indeed to have parents like me… I mean, us.

Two of Jake’s paintings have been lovingly displayed on the top compartment of our fridge. Three of Gemma’s miniature paintings have their place, in a straight line, of course, on the bottom compartment. Ooh, and I need to check the bathroom for any signs of messiness. It’s probably true what they say – about how judgemental people can be when it comes to others’ bathrooms.

We don’t really actually use all those ‘designer’ shower gels and body cremes that we keep being gifted with at those abysmal work New Year’s parties. Still, it won’t do to have the ones we normally use, out, for everyone to gawk at. So I pour out some of the product from the ‘designer’ bottles, and place them on the shelf. The blue-y ones on one side, and the more reddish ones on the other. And, of course, the kids’ toothbrush holder in the middle – the Disneyland one. Our guests just have to know that we’ve been to Disneyland. We’re good parents, we are.

Next, Gemma’s room. Bed made, check. Things in good order, yes. But the pots of kiddy slime that currently plaster her desk. No! We can’t have them thinking that my precious daughter is only like any other abhorrent little child. The thought of them thinking that my Gemma is fascinated by… goo. Preposterous, absurd. My Gemma is a little genius, and she has three certificates from school to prove it. “Karen, darling! Have you seen the Blu-tack anywhere?”

Jake: my firstborn. Heir to whatever titles I may claim to have, all-round apple of my eye. But why oh why, Jake, do you insist on keeping all those books of yours under your bed, away from view? How else are my guests going to know that you’re an avid reader? I’ve seen your books. You’ve been reading about (what’s it called again? Dinosaur facts and stuff? Paleo… Paleology? Oh, no, yes —) palaeontology – since you were barely six years old! Okay, now where’s your sports gear? Also under your bed? Wait, what’s this? Football certificates, framed, and on your wall? Atta-boy, son, atta-boy!

My mug collection, everything in its correct place. The one from Berlin, the one from Jerusalem, the one from Athens. We need to let people know that we are a well-travelled bunch. After all, what’s the point in having something – an experience, or a brilliant trait – if it cannot be shown, known?

Karen has informed me of the fact that she thinks I only do all of this stuff before dinner parties because I’m “given to exhibitions of tasteless showiness”. But I always think, shut up woman. I married you for your pretty face and for your hourglass figure, mainly. Don’t give me all that, all those big words. What could they possibly even add to your character – to your role as my wife?

My wife plays tennis. The evidence: framed pictures lining the hallway. Sometimes, my wife and I play tennis together. The evidence: more picture frames, in our living room, of course. She’s perfect for me, Karen is. We are both so in sync with one another, so undeniably compatible. We both like brown bread and we both work in the financial sector!

We’re serious people, too. See, I, for one, really like to follow the advice of renowned architects when it comes to interior decor. I do like reading those stylish urban magazines. Put the most recent edition on the coffee table, naturally – the one that talks about the value of rustic vases. Five minutes after reading that article, I purchased four of said ornaments online – the most expensive ones I could find, naturally. 

We’re also interesting people, don’t get me wrong. Our home is not black and white. We have coloured rugs. Our kettle is blue. And did I mention, we like to put our children’s artistic creations up on the fridge. My best friend’s half-Muslim; Hassan from work knows this. I think we’re quite liberal, as parents, and as people.

Karen, your hair. Your hair, Karen. Why does it look so messy? A French braid, Karen. Tie it into a French braid. How do I tell her to tie it into a French braid, without sending her off into another one of those strops of hers? I can’t have her embarrassing me, in front of them. Hassan’s wife, by contrast to this sorry woman, seems like she is quite a cheerful lady. I have never seen her frown, not once. Actually, maybe the Botox on her forehead has something to do with it. Oh, and her Pakoras – have I told you about her Pakoras? Heavenly!

Karen only knows how to make sandwiches. Sandwiches made with brown bread. I loved this about her for a short while. But, boy, do I crave some homemade stew sometimes. Some Pakoras. Our solution, a happy compromise: we buy homemade food from a local bistro. Arrange it on plates to look like Karen made it. And everyone’s a winner! Well, except me, of course. I’m married to her!

The kids are sitting on the stairs. They are holding their instructional flash cards. Good; they are doing exactly as they should. My wife, on the other hand, she simply objects to using these cards that I make for her. If she messes up today, without them, it will be entirely her own fault. If she messes up, I will simply not speak to her for two days and half of another one. Then, we will go and play some tennis, take some pictures for Facebook…and maybe we will have some brown bread sandwiches.

Can you keep a secret? I don’t actually like brown bread — not even by a crumb. I only told her I loved it pre-marriage, you see, when I had been trying to impress her, at work. I’m not even sure if she likes brown bread all that much, either. I’m not sure if she thinks anything of anything, most of the time. In fact, I am convinced that the only thing she talks about with her therapist each week is her most recent weight loss venture.

DING DONG. Okay, they have arrived. Everybody in their places. Do not get me wrong. This household belongs to me, and I am its director. Bueno. Now, Door, smiles, 

Action!

 

Book Review: Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity – Tariq Ramadan

There are some books that you may come across, in your life, that are rather subtly powerful. They hold within them the ability to really change your life and your ways of thinking – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For me, this has certainly been one of those books (for the better). This ‘book review’ series on my blog will be dedicated to my reviewing – and independently commenting on the ideas explored – of different books that I love. I won’t review every book I read – only the ones I feel must be shared in this way. 

Tariq Ramadan, I think, is my all-time favourite non-fiction author and academic. He has an undeniable ‘way with words’, Allahummabārik; he presents some very interesting and comforting ideas in a manner that harmoniously merges clarity with profundity. His works focus on Islam – Islamic ethics and legislation, history, Islamophobia, modern politics in light of ‘Islamist’ movements… I am particularly fond of this work of his – as well as another one of his books, entitled: ‘To be a European Muslim’.

As Muslims living in this current (rather confusing, rather intense) epoch, it is natural for us to deeply question many things. Our place here, how to be.

To be a Muslim (today, always) is to be a stranger – a traveller, as the Hadith goes – in the Dunya. To “be here in order to be better over There”. And how true this is. The most prevalent ways of doing things, of thinking, and of being, here can often be quite antithetical to the teachings of our faith.

What are some of the defining characteristics of this modern world? Undeniably, this is a world that is heavily focused on appearances. Facades, the ‘outside’, shells. Lies (which are widely and eagerly devoured), rumours, scandal-mongering, narcissism, widespread distrust. Brutalisers being convincingly disguised as the respectable ones.

The world of modernity is also heavily focused on the principle of individualism. And these two tenets – that of appearances and that of (an inhuman level of) individualism – marry to render the modern world one that is fuelled, very much, by selfishness and deceit.

The society of entertainment, excessive consumption and generalised individualism coexists with the most extreme destitution and the most total misery”

People churn out ‘wealth’ – sell their bodies and souls to do so; many people end up becoming richer — leading richer lives, but rarely necessarily happier ones. Many become so caught up in these images of ‘plenty’ that they forget about the stuff of actual value. One of the breaking wings of modernity is made of speed, computer science, fashion, blaring music with the most peculiar lyrics, cinematic illusions, facades of ever-growing ‘freedoms’. The other: exploitation, weariness, poverty, loneliness, dissatisfaction and despondency, and the children who die at the hands of those who claim to fight in the name of ‘freedom’. One wing functions as a mask for the other. A colourful exterior pressed atop an inside that is soulless and rotten.

“Modern times have, for our memories, a concern for image, and also the infinite neglect of reality and meaning”

There are many problems around us, which serve as evident threats to our spirituality, to our humanity and to our ‘Muslimness’: they are detrimental to the human Fitrah. Many of these things, we find ourselves becoming increasingly desensitised to: senseless violence, shameless vanity and arrogance, greed and overindulgence, chronic intoxication and/or distraction, widespread nudity and sexual immoralities… The list goes on.

In modern society, secularisation tends to be championed. The sacred is desacralised. Modesty, the beauty and elegance of simplicity, the excellence of manners, deeply caring for and tending to the natural environment. These things become obliterated by the army tanks of the modern world. We are a society of individuals; all that seems to matter is the capitalist ‘value’ we can find in things. Morality comes from nothing but the human imagination; it is ‘decided by society’.

“…modernity renders us so unfaithful to our humanity […] The daily running of the world steals us from ourselves, to the point, sometimes, of rendering our personality double and tearing us apart.”

The interactions between Islam and global politics are also a deeply significant thing to consider, here. Often, ardent nationalists operate under the (highly mobilising, highly unifying) guise of religion in order to do their damage. Religion devoid of spirituality, and whose cold exterior latches onto political (nationalistic) movements actually defeats the point of religion itself: religio, to relegate oneself before God.

What else is ‘modernity’ characterised by? I think Ramadan describes it perfectly. Adding to the aforementioned theme of covering up the truth and engaging in (indulging in) falsehood, much of modern society is composed of examples of one part in direct conflict with another: thus is the basis of all neuroses.

Many comedians, for example, wear happy faces but a lot of them (a shocking number) have revealed that they suffer from deep (exogenous) depression. This pattern of double personalities can also be seen in the wider world of celebrities; in the culture that they collectively champion and foster in others.

“When men lose morality they find the jungle and become wolves”

To be true to our Muslim identities, in this world today, we must commit to being committed to Truth, no matter what. “[Saying] the truth and [re-saying] it, before God, without fear”. Despite any material difficulties or emotional struggles we may face: we must vow to be true to Truth, in its exactness. And to justice. Authenticity. Goodness, kindness, fraternity, the pursuit of beneficial knowledge. Spirituality — the heart and soul of this religion.

As Muslims, the deceitful adornments of the world should not faze us. The Qur’an and Hadiths tell us about its reality: marry the world, and you actually end up marrying, essentially, what resembles the rotting insides of a camel’s carcass [Hadith].

We really ought to favour ‘Barakah culture’ over ‘Hustle culture’. Our bodies do not exist to be used, in their entireties, by corporations and such. Our Lord is far more important and powerful; our Haqq is more, well, Haqq. We bring Barakah into our lives by favouring three things – worship, the pursuit of knowledge, and the graceful servitude of others. And these things undoubtedly interact with one another: the quality of one affects the quality of the others.

Today, we are just so self-absorbed. We care too much about how we look, and about our titles, and about our social media accounts — about how we can best come across to others. We have lost the art of sincerity, so it would seem; often, things are done for the primary purpose of social recognition, and in the names of efficiency and rationalisation. When we exclusively focus on these particular things, the world becomes one of black and white, and of smog and several other hues of grey.

As Muslims, we do need to tend to our ‘portions in the [current] world’: we go to school, and to work. We eat, we have friends. We partake in creative and personal projects. But, for us, Deen takes precedence over Dunya. Our religion gives true life to our lives. And here, we “live and learn how to die, live in order to learn how to die”.

And prayer should be our lives’ lifeblood. As Ramadan writes, prayer “[gives] strength, in humility, to the meaning of an entire life”.

I love that books like these incorporate history, personal anecdotes, politics, philosophy, and more, all into one. It was fascinating to read about why Islam today looks like what it does, and in various parts of the world; about things like the Islamic Centre of Geneva (est. 1961) for instance, and how it broadcasted a certain form of Islam to several other European Muslim communities; about the growing religious influence of the Saudis, the Islamic World League, how pan-Arab politics both informed, and was informed by, all these happenings.

Our problem is one of spirituality. If a man comes to speak to me about the reforms to be undertaken in the Muslim world, about political strategies and of great geo-strategic plans, my first question to him would be whether he performed the dawn prayer (Fajr) on time”

– Said Ramadan

“Power is not our objective; what have we to do with it? Our goal is love of the Creator, the fraternity and justice of Islam. This is our message to dictators.” 

These days, many influential Muslims are actually, unfortunately, walking epitomes of the notion of religion without spirituality. They may sport lengthy beards, quote the Qur’an almost endlessly. But Islam would not appear to be in their hearts: instead, the love of things like wealth, power, titles and territory are.

There are many things that the Muslims of today – in particular, we youngins – need to unlearn. There are also many things that we must learn and then proceed to internalise. For example, our hearts (if we are to truly find peace) must come to sing the idea that “solitude with God is better than neglect with men”. The link with God is the way.

The concept of modernisation is constantly valorised by those who live under it. Why wouldn’t a person or a place want to be ‘modern’? Granted, there are some ‘positives’ to this whole global project. A certain type of work ethic, in conjunction with certain personal liberties, does breed invention. Innovation, efficiency, improvement, sanitisation, gigantic systems that work (mostly) for the benefit of the people.

In the European Middle Ages, dynamism in this way had simply not been a thing. Feudalistic power structures and the unshifting dominance of the clergy in circles of thought contributed to a certain sort of “numbness”, a stifling of sorts. “Nothing seemed to move; men were as if paralysed…” So today’s constant state of movement may be seen as a welcome change from these erstwhile times. But instead of a steady state of flow, we seem to now be moving recklessly, too quickly. Growth for the sake of growth; it is not healthy.

But modernity is also, unfortunately, the things that are hidden beneath the veneer of shininess. Massive inequalities of wealth and resources. Poverty and exploitation. Pandemic addictions. Increased rates of severe mental illnesses. And, of course, all those other things – what, now, are hallmarks of modernity – that our Prophet (SAW) had warned us about.

There are certainly some good things from the current state of things that the modern Muslim can benefit from; these things are not anti-Islamic. Science, technology, the pursuit of wisdom, and progress. [It is important to note that, in the Christian world, science and progress had come about as a result of that society’s parting with religion, for the most part. On the flip-side, the Muslim world had flourished when it had been more in touch with its spirituality; it declined when this had been lost]. An issue arises solely when people cling to these things in lieu of a link with God. Knowledge should breed Taqwa; what we learn should come benefit our own souls, as well as those of the people.

In (temporary) solitude and seclusion, muddied water – agitated, noisy – slows down; the dirt settles, and then there is peace. Clarity, flow and focus may be achieved here. When Islam is in our hearts; when we are able to exhibit due Khushuu’ in our prayers, life becomes warm. Meaningful. Animated with gratitude and Barakah; a separateness from the cheapness of meaningless chatter. A walk – even if it be a solitary one – towards wisdom and elegance. It slows down; the roses bloom. Beautiful heart, beautiful thoughts, and all the rest of it.

“To be good and do good, before God, is the meaning of this call.” 

And, right now, we all find ourselves in our own houses, quarantined, mostly in solitude. As much of the Islamic tradition demonstrates, there is much Khayr – goodness – to be found in solitude and seclusion: this is where the sacred tends to reveal itself. Where you can train yourself to be a contented observer of the world, in it, but not wholly devoted to it… being somewhat distant from all the noise and the crowds, for here is where one may find clarity.

From the very first pages of its Foreword, I was enthralled by the messages this book contains. I considered it to be very informative, and yet so very soulfully validating. It has inspired me to try to get closer to God; to give my daily prayers their due diligence, Insha Allah; to not be distracted by the distractions of a noisy world that is filled with busy people who talk far too much.

In case I didn’t manage to make it clear earlier, I so love this book; I would truly recommend it.

“Be like a fruit tree. They attack you with stones, and you respond with fruits.”

– Hasan al-Banna


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Review: ‘Unveiled’ by Rumki Chowdhury

Rumki Chowdhury’s Unveiled is an amazing piece of work; it succeeds in conveying the complex nature of the lives of Muslim girls in Western society, attempting to carve out their own identities against a backdrop of confusion, prejudice, and paranoia, especially in the wake of terrorist incidents. The book is a statement of defiance against ignorance, as well as an emblem of reassurance and hope for Muslim women everywhere. 
In the first three parts, Chowdhury skilfully explores the three separate but united components of being: the mind- and its barriers to achieving freedom, the body- as well as social pressures pertaining to outward appearances, and, finally, the soul- and creating a sense of inner beauty, strength and peace. 
Chowdhury writes about the hijab from her own perspective, as a symbol of choice and empowerment, as opposed to one of oppression; her writing provides an authentic voice, which is extremely necessary when it comes to the discussion of such topics; we are in desperate need of having more genuine, witty, and sincere female Muslim voices like hers to be at the forefront of our discourse. 
As someone with a Muslim Bangladeshi background myself, I was able to fully appreciate Chowdhury’s humorous anecdotal tales, and found many of her references very relatable. Her words are eloquent, yet equally accessible and enjoyable. All in all, Unveiled sends a message of hope to readers, and will encourage non-Muslim readers to view the world through the eyes of a strong, intelligent, though frequently misunderstood, Muslimah.

Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Identity

Assalamu ‘alaikum. I wrote this article when I was sixteen years old. Since then, my views of things, especially in regards to Islam, have changed and developed.

The question of identity is one that every person battles with, particularly during adolescence, when we find ourselves confined within a grey area between the euphoric joys of childhood, and the endless responsibilities that come with adulthood.

This state of uncertainty can, understandably, lead to an identity crisis (or, in my case, a procession of consecutive identity crises) during which one questions the very nature of one’s existence: Who am I? And why am I here?

These questions are undoubtedly exacerbated by the sleepless world of social media: we are constantly being bombarded with expectations, labels, and stereotypes pertaining to our collective sense of self, which have now become impossible to avoid. Essentially, we are being placed into categorical cages, which shape our thoughts and our behaviours. One is either a nerd or an athlete- always introverted or always extroverted-masculine or feminine. We are so often forced to define ourselves.

Hello, my name is Sadia Ahmed and I am… a girl? A South Asian person? A teenager? A Muslim? A writer?

But I am forced to wonder: who am I, and what truly defines me? Do social circumstances (over which I have no control) define me? And if so, what if my circumstances change? Will I gradually lose fragments of my personality?

These thoughts remind me of an interesting philosophical idea- the Theseus’ Ship paradox. If one replaces every wooden part of a ship over a long period of time (resulting in the creation of a completely identical vessel) would it be correct to state that the replicated ship is still the original ship? Similarly, do we maintain congruous identities, even after being subjected to varying experiences and ever-changing ideas?

My qualms surrounding the theme of identity have always been lodged somewhere in the deep, dangerous recesses of my mind, but recently these qualms have been amplified. Sylvia Plath once said, “I know pretty much what I like and dislike; but please, don’t ask me who I am.” I can relate very well to this statement: I am constantly being asked to define myself- to encapsulate my entire existence within a handful of words, whether it be at social gatherings, or school, or even in social media biographies. To be able to respond appropriately, I must favour some aspects of my identity over others. I am a nerd who enjoys travelling, writing, and reading. This is what I usually respond with. However, by doing this, I am forced to omit other aspects of my rather fluid personality:

I like eating takeaway near my windowsill at night when it is raining. I love having ‘packed lunches’ while watching something nice. I love the texture of paper that has been adorned with words and feelings. I love observing people, because every time I engage in this practice, I am reminded that human beings can be such wonderful and sincere creatures.

Our idiosyncrasies can never be contained within a string of words, or even within several strings of several words, and other people’s perceptions of us can often be very superficial, centered on little more than their own woes and insecurities. Do I talk too much? Good. Does my existence bother people? Even better. 

We are all born to different families, in different places, with different destinies. Sometimes it is comforting to know that others can relate to our perspectives and experiences, however in reality, other people are very quick to (subconsciously) stereotype and assume things based on meaningless observations. Some people speculate that because I am a ‘nerd’ whose interests are rooted in academia, I must love science. I must wish to become a surgeon, or an engineer, perhaps. I seem like I take everything too seriously. I must spend all my hours revising. ‘Intellectually capable’ people love science, want to become medics, study incessantly, and have no capacity whatsoever to embrace humour or affection; these must be facts of life, right? Wrong. These stereotypes are false, but they place a lot of pressure on me to be a certain way, unless I want to betray myself by straying away from my own ‘identity’. But alas, in reality, I possess an ardent love for English and History, and it truly irritates me when people surmise that science is more intellectually challenging, or more rewarding, than the humanities. Also, I would like to become a professor or a lawyer in the future- medicine is, no doubt, a fascinating field, however I prefer fields that involve writing, speaking, and analysing different viewpoints. Oh, and finally, education is indisputably a priority to me, but so is friendship. So is family.

And so is occasionally sitting back and simply enjoying life.


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Fire

The woman crouched down on the floor, her bespectacled eyes affixed on the myriad of books that lined the towering shelf that stood before her. She was tall, thin and ‘atypically’ beautiful; she wore no makeup, but her skin glowed like the light of the harvest moon. Her eyes were large and brown, and she wore a resolute facial expression of intellect and mystery combined. After a minute or two of browsing, she extracted a book from the shelf. Stroking her silver pendant, which sat atop her plain black shirt, she marched over to the librarian’s desk, leaving behind herself something like a trail of fire.