Family

Today, I am thinking about family. Yesterday, after Ifthar, my uncle and aunt had made plans to visit the charity dessert stall behind the mosque: one of my aunts (my mum’s cousin Jeba) works for a Muslim charity — Human Aid. And, another one of my aunts (Jeba Khala’s, and my mum’s, cousin) runs her own chocolatier business. She (my chocolate-making aunt) volunteered to put up a stall with Human Aid, to raise some money for charity, post-Taraweeh prayers.

My cousin Moosa, also, volunteers for this charity. Undeniably lovable chap, he is. Before I was blessed with a little brother of my own — who shares the same parents as me, that is — Moosa had been my little brother. An ardent lover of Ben Ten and, a little later, of Spider-Man, as a child. He had been such a smily little sweetheart. And he had been my (late) grandfather’s absolute favourite. Sometimes, Moosa would come around to my house, to stay, and I loved it when he would. My dad would treat him like he were his own son — and the two of them still share such a unique and beautiful bond [the centrepiece of that bond being, probably: a shared passion for food]. My mum would be in charge of cleaning up after the little-kid-in-question’s… accidents.

So Moosa had been my first little brother. Then came Isa. Saif is the brother with whom I share a home and our parents. And now, there is Dawud. Dawud the sweet, eccentric [well, all children are ‘eccentric’, actually] car-obsessed one. The gentle and soft: the one who does not immediately go in for hugs. But if he likes you, he’ll randomly give you a little kiss from time to time, and tell you that he loves you “big much!”

My friend Tamanna has a little car-obsessed cousin too. He is called Danyal [I hope I spelled that right] and he is quite the outgoing, exuberant little charmer. His teachers adore him; he is the type of kid to act extraordinarily familiar with you as soon as you meet him. Tells you he’ll buy you, casually, a Lamborghini among other things. And much like Dawud’s “I love you big much!”, Danyal is known to say, “I love you a hundred million fousand!”

Dawud does not like it at all when there is anything sticky on his hands. Randomly, in the middle of nothing-much-happening, he… ‘collapses’ on the kitchen floor and loudly announces, “I’m deaad!”

Danyal’s uncle wanted to get some personalised Adidas clothes for him. Danyal requested that his hat (I think it was a hat, at least) be made with… a big round black dot on the back. Why? Nobody knows but young Danny, and Allah. But his uncle obliged with this unique request.

I can’t lie: in some ways, Danyal reminds me quite a bit of Tamanna, while Dawud reminds me a bit of myself. Tamanna is, technically, a ‘family-friend’ of mine: her nan lives at Number Fifteen, and my Nan used to live right here, at Number Seven. On a random day in July 2010, we had declared our official ‘best-friendship’ together. [But now the title ‘best friend’ sounds too childish. ‘Mortal enemy’ sounds far more mature]. She, the adorable one who would (literally) in public, pick up litter off of the ground, to put in the bin; collect leaves and flowers in a little tin box in order to ‘make perfume’ out of them; greet random passersby with a joyful “good morning”. And! She has always had this remarkable and unique ability to play. ‘Army game’ under the table at Islamic school. A soap opera character at my aunt’s friend’s wedding in Wales (in a Southern belle accent, holding, if I recall correctly, a wine glass filled with fruit juice: “Don’t liiie to me sugar, don’t lie to me!”) A little more recently – well, four years ago now, roughly: we walk into a fancy-looking place, and she is Queen Victoria. At IKEA, she is a hairdresser or a shop owner or some such. She has this joie de vivre about her, this larger-than-life personality, and I love her for it. The best mortal enemy I have ever had.

It is Allah who decides that it is necessary for one person to be in another person’s life: these things just happen, but they do not ‘just happen’.

Both Moosa and Tamanna are pretty much the same, today, but in more developed-over-time ways. Moosa — when his father had worked weekends at his friend’s restaurant in Sudbury — worked there, too, for a while (over summer, I think it had been). He got on with his coworkers and the customers so effortlessly well. It is all down to his smile, and his humorous and unassuming, unaffected nature (Masha Allah), methinks. These qualities benefit him very well when it comes to the whole fundraising thing. And I can’t say that I am not deeply proud of him. He is fifteen years old, now, and so he is no longer my Mahram. We ‘air-spud’, now, instead of hug. He manages to fully convince me that he’s secretly been doing drugs. Cracks [pun not intended, but still sort of there] a few dark jokes, from time to time. Yep, super proud of him, I am.

Tamanna, just the other day, got visibly very frustrated when someone threw a bit of litter out of their car. She is (still) the type to, for example, colourfully tell the (apathetic-seeming) shopkeeper to “Have a good day!” Came to my workplace, recently, to pick me up. Offered some of my colleagues some sweets, as though she knew them already.

I, by contrast, had been the school-loving kind to plan random (‘spirited’. Crazy.) projects. I had been the type to: give myself a really bad haircut in the depths of one Ramadan night [I had decided that I really wanted bangs. When my mum took me to the hairdresser’s to get that abomination corrected, Tee had been in the seat next to mine, herself also getting a haircut, which she ended up secretly detesting]; get a splinter the length of my index finger, lodged into my leg [Asian dress – Selwar Kameez – and a wooden climbing frame. An ominous combination]. Khala, Tee’s mum, had tried to extract the painful specimen using a tweezer back at her house, but to no avail. We ended up having to go A&E, and Tamanna sat in the room while they took it out. I was deeply mortified by everything about this incident]; convince Tamanna, who had learnt to make her own food pretty early, to cook her eggs without oil, because it would be ‘much healthier’. And what else had ensued, but catastrophe?  

[We also made a club, at Islamic School, which I had come up with the name for. ‘The Salvation Army’. Back then, we had no idea what this name actually meant: I had just seen it on the side of a building, and rather liked the sound of it…]

The point of this article had been to talk about family. In the Qur’an, Allah instructs for us to be good towards our ‘relatives’/’kin’ [this is how the word ‘الْقُرْبَىٰ’ – Al-Qurbaa – tends to be translated]. The root word of this, the Arabic, word is: ‘قرب’, which means ‘close’, or ‘near’. Another word for ‘relatives’, in the Qur’an, is ‘أَرْحَامُكُمْ’, whose root word is ‘رحم’, meaning ‘compassion/nourishment’, ‘womb/uterus’, and (in a connected way,) ‘blood-relationships’. ‘الْقُرْبَىٰ’, I believe, refers to those who are ‘close/near’ to us: family, friends, neighbours, coworkers; while ‘أَرْحَامُكُمْ’ is likely to refer specifically to blood-ties, even if you are not particularly ‘close’ with them [they still have rights over you].

In terms of ‘Qurbaa’, some of our friends become exceptionally close to us. And, in terms of ‘Arhaam’, some of our blood-relations are not particularly close with us, sometimes as a result of familial tensions and disputes and such, and sometimes simply as a result of distance: a lack of (true) presence in one another’s lives.

Yesterday, after Dawud and I hung out on the trampoline, and after he suddenly betrayed me, for a while (siding with Saif and Isa to call me “yucky” — and, later, when the other boys were not there, he outright denied that he had ever done such a thing) I asked his parents if I could go with them to the charity dessert stall. I really wanted to see everyone. Whomever I could see, of the clan, the tribe.

So, post-Ifthar, we all went there. My uncle (Ranga Mama), my aunt, and my aunt’s sister. And Dawud, and Faldi (what he calls me, since he can’t pronounce ‘Fuldi’  — a cute honorific title that my cousin Maryam had given me, a long time ago. It means ‘flower sister’, and now all my little cousins call me it).

I had been a little tired and overfed, but it was quite nice nonetheless, Alhamdulillah. It was nice to see Jannah Khala (Suto Mami’s sister) after so long. “All of Dawud’s favourite people are here now!” Suto Mami remarked (and this made my day).

When we got there: my aunts whom I had not seen for ages greeted me so very lovingly. Shibu Khala, Jeba Khala, Babli Khala, Koli Khala. And the ‘young adults’: Moosa, Maryam, Ibby (Ibrahim), Jammy (Jamilah), Lia, Kayaan. And the kids: Ayat, Shayan, Jinaan, Hana, Milly (Amelia), Dalia and Daneen. All helping out on the stall.

The last time I had seen everyone had been at a family wedding, (Sunia Khala’s) two years ago. Two years ago. The kids have all grown up and changed – developed – so much. The babies of back then are no longer babies. But, in such an interesting way, each of their essences remain, quite beautifully, the same. Their cheeky and insanely adorable smiles, and/or their quiet, contemplative, headstrong natures. Ibby and Moosa are pretty much exactly the same as one another, as I discovered yesterday: they kept bursting out into laughter for no good reason, exchanging side-spuds, finding it hilarious that Ibby (who is half-Arab) is ‘more Bengali’ than I am (because ‘Bengali banter’ and I would appear to simply not go very well with each other).

These are members of my ‘Arhaam’: the daughters’ daughters, and also their daughters, of my great-grandmother (who passed away in 2016, I think it had been) Bibi Noor. She had lived with her son – and his seven daughters – in a big house in Shadwell. Quite a nucleic home, it had been, frequented by various family members, so much of the time. The kids, all upstairs. The adults, all downstairs. The classic Nutella sandwiches as snacks. Big vats of rice and curry made for everyone: the hustle and bustle. Mayhem and fun. All these relatives of mine had been such a welcome part of my childhood, Alhamdulillah: something that I, the only child from the very quiet household, very much needed, actually.

I feel close to these people in a special way. In a, ‘Allah-has-decreed-for-you-and-I-to-be-of-this-same-clan’ way. And, yet, I have felt a little far away, too. Like back when school had been my foremost priority. GCSEs had been all-consuming, for me, but then I got to see everybody over the summer, what with Sweetie’s wedding. All the preparations that had come along with it; all the gatherings. The time of my life that had (on an academic/professional-structural-level) been about A-levels, for me, had been, overall, quite an alienating experience. Extraordinarily stressful: personal struggles with academic perfectionism, may-haps. The pressure I had put on myself to ‘do’ so much. How many family gatherings I had missed, for the sake of exams. Exhaustion. And other familial, and (otherwise) personal things.

I had been conditioned, and yes I had also conditioned myself, to view exams and ‘work’ as being, perhaps, the foremost parts of life. As a result, maybe, things frayed, and things were hard. But, over time, my way of viewing things developed.

Allah comes first, and what He has commanded for me, and what He has told me is good for me. Family: my Qurbaa, including friends. Or, soul sisters (and one Mortal Enemy, for good measure). And anything else I do is only good insomuch as it is good for my Deen, and for them, and for me. Any other recipe for ‘success’ and contentment, in this life, is, to me, woefully illusive.

So, post-A-level-alienation, and amid a lockdown-warranting pandemic (which has truly forced and facilitated, Alhamdulillah, my ‘looking inwards’  — including, at the portions of Dunya which are actually mine. Home and such) I find myself here. For Suhoor, last night (this morning) I had two marshmallow-and-strawberry skewers (dipped in chocolate) from the dessert stall: one, I had paid for. And one, Koli Khala had insisted on my taking for free.

ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّٰهِ رَبِّ ٱلْعَالَمِينَ.

I spent yesterday evening shivering awkwardly, in the cold. Talking to Dawud, and then to (three-year-old) Dalia. Dalia is, Masha Allah Allahummabārik, one of the cutest kids I have ever come across. We had a long conversation together, about how her red drink is making her tongue all red. And how her favourite colour is green. “Green?!”

She has this way of nodding her head once and, with excitement, saying, “Yeaah!” as if you are meant to already know these things.

Some very funny things took place, yesterday, also. Me mistaking a Niqabi helper at the stall for one of my cousins.

“Is that Jammy?!”

“No”

Getting a chocolate skewer for Milly. Her older sister asked her if she even knows who I am. “No,” she said, turning around to look at me again, with a smile. “But thank you!”

Shayan, quiet and reflective. Worrying over how well his side of the stall was doing. Carries around him an air that is quite… noble-seeming, for his age. And seems to really consider what he is about to say, before he says it. Ayat and Jinaan, the clever girls (Masha Allah). The former: decisive, strong-willed. The latter: gentler, more easygoing.

Shibu Khala going for a little cruise, in her Jilbāb, (outside the mosque, at midnight). Oh, and on a mobility scooter, no less, which had been donated to the charity, for auction. Everybody around her almost shrieking with laughter. The strangest thought: Shibu Khala’s siblings refer to her as their ‘Fuldi’. She is currently in her mid-thirties. What am I going to be like (Insha Allah) as my cousin-siblings’ Fuldi, in my mid-thirties?!

Moosa picking Kayaan up to make a human flag out of him, on a lamppost. Koli Khala taking Dawud for a drive around the block, in her BMW [he loves cars so much. That one cruise might just make him love her forever].

Everybody has some sort of role, here. What’s mine? In big social settings like these, I do tend to be relatively quieter. I prefer my one-on-one conversations; it feels more comfortable for me to be a bit of a wallflower in larger settings. And, still, I belong. Even with my fears about myself (am I being too awkward? Too strange?) I should be thoroughly, thoroughly grateful that these people are of me, and I, too, am of them. I look so forward to future family events and such. Carving out my own role, more, in these things: I am no longer only an extension of my parents. But I have things from him, and things from her. I have things of them, too. And I bring something to them (I hope, at least,) also.

I have pretty much always sought to better understand myself, I suppose. But the truth, as I have found it, is that we are not ‘independent’ beings. We require our Qurbaa around us, always, as people to love, and be loved by; as mirrors to tell us whom we are, and whom we are trying to be, and all the rest of it.

I love the ways through which Allah teaches us things, and how things happen. Even if things are difficult – maybe even extremely so, for some times at a time: the darknesses are known only to push the light into greater relief.

On our way back home from the dessert stand yesterday (or, was it on the way there? My short-term memory tends to be terrible) my uncle shared with me some lines of poetry he had come up with, a while ago:

“Too fine

Are the perfect lines

Of the human mind

To comprehend the rugged canvases

Of all these plans Divine”

[I forgot what the last parts had actually been, so I invented a new final line]

I had found out about this little event (which basically turned into a big – and, yet, little, when compared to the vastness, Masha Allah, of our tribe – family reunion) because: I work in Whitechapel. I tend to go to the local Tesco to get things, here and there. A few weeks ago, I went there and bumped into Jeba Khala. I had not seen her in… maybe two years. She lives miles away, but, as it had turned out, she had acquired a job at the local Human Aid office (alongside her two other ones: Hijāmah – cupping – and doing research at a lab, Allahummabārik). We exchanged numbers. I saw the details re the stall, on her WhatsApp status. Found out Moosa was going. Found out Ranga Mama, Suto Mami and Dawud were going, too. Alhamdulillah.

Too fine are the lines of my mind, Subhan Allah. These beautiful things are not in my hands. Nothing, and nobody, is ‘perfect’, here, although certain presentations of ‘super-normal’ realities may delude us into thinking so. But those things are only distractions.

I wonder about those things that are, [at present,] beyond my comprehension. I know that they are there, but I do not, [at present,] know them. Mad.

I so wonder about the capacities to which I will get to know all these gorgeous family members; how my friendships will develop over time, too. Whether or not I get married, in this lifetime. Whom I marry. What our future homes will look like. How this family, and the individual families it is comprised of, will grow larger, grow smaller over time. New additions to love: through marriages, through births. And, beloved members to know we have loved: to mourn over, and also to count on our eventual reunions with, Insha Allah.

I know that, if I Believe, then I believe in the beauty – sometimes aching, sometimes joy-infused – of all of these things. Past, and present, and (the present moments that will make up the) future.

And Perfectly, though not-always-so-neatly-comprehensibly, are Drawn all of these lines. What is ours is ours. May we meet them so very beautifully, each and every time. And may we know how to love them most truly, and most ardently.

Āmeen.


With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

It Matters / It Does Not Matter

At my workplace, on Tuesdays, we are fortunate enough to have staff Halaqahs (Islamic talks, during which we sit on the prayer carpets, and one person leads the session). Delivered by the ‘Alimiyyah (Islamic Sciences) teachers in turns, these weekly circles are something I have truly been loving. This, and coming into school with Surah Kahf being played through the tannoys every Friday morning, just after winter sun has come up. The Tuesday Halaqahs: such necessary, and often quite moving, reminders. I like that Deen is at the very centre of the ethos, purpose, and all else of this school. I do not think I would be able to contentedly work at a state secondary school [where true spirituality and religion are not core principles, I truly think only meaninglessness and materialism are left behind in their wakes…]

Today’s had been a rather memorable Halaqah session. I suddenly found tears rolling out of my eyes: unimpeded and so unexpected, while processing the teacher’s words, today. Bringing it all back to what I had been thinking about, quite a lot, of late.

That is what I truly am, as a teacher there. I feel, simultaneously, I am very much a student: I am learning and re-learning things, from their very basics. Teachers do not know everything — about anything. They very much learn, and learn, and learn, on the job.

I love it when the early morning sun floods through this old Victorian building. Big windows, old walls. I love that the Qur’an is always there, to turn back to: I love that Qur’ans line many of the shelves here. And the view of yellow-leaved trees outside, and the high-rise buildings (Aldgate, the increasingly gentrified parts of East London) on one side, the rows of chimneyed council houses just adjacent to them: what an interesting contrast. The unmissable deep orange reflection of sunrise, still left behind on the new(-ish) part of the Royal London Hospital.

My brother had been born there, on the twelfth-or-something floor, of that building. I can still remember the day fairly vividly. Three days before my having started secondary school (as a student, that is!) Everything had changed, that year. Hours on end, of waiting and waiting. But that did not matter: I had waited for years and years to be an older sister. I mention my brother, here, because during Ustādha S’s talk, I had found myself thinking about the following questions:

“Do I love?”

and

Am I loved?”

The answer is, Alhamdulillah, yes to both. I thought about my brother, and about how much Du’a I had made for him, prior to his coming into (worldly) existence. Nobody, really, had seen him coming. Most thought I would remain an only child forever. And, I don’t know. He is not the type – and those of you who know him personally will likely know this about him – to express affection so openly and/or ‘conventionally’ (except, perhaps, when it comes to his cat…) But it is in the small and the silly and the unexpected and/or typical-of-him moments that my heart floods with the love I have always had for him. The love I had come to learn upon first being given the chance to hold him in my arms. The love I am frequently reminded of, for example when he… needs me to deal with a spider in his room or something. Yes, sometimes it is ironically through his eight-year-old boy remarks about how “annoying” or how much of a “dummy” I am – or when he simply needs to tell me everything he knows about Charles Darwin – that I am reminded that I am indeed so loved, as a big sister, Subhan Allah, too. There is loneliness in this world, and there is also love. Allah (SWT) is the provider of all of this love: He is Al-Wadūd.

Ustādha S had mentioned, in her talk today, That Day. A forthcoming reality we oft find ourselves quite heedless of, or in outright denial of. Falsehoods mixed with and mistaken for truth, and vice versa. That Day on which, on the horizontal ‘creation’ level, we will find ourselves quite alone. Standing before our Creator, trembling. Are you prepared well enough for it? And, right now, we are quite alive, and we are quite real, and every single moment means something. This is your story; these are the moments, and the days, of your life. The flow of time; the presently-ceaseless flowing of ink. The grand storybook that shall be produced, come the End of it all. It will either be placed in your right hand, or… atop your left one.

Nothing will matter, on That Day, except for your own soul, quaking in new-urgent God-consciousness. You will be alone.

Have you ever come to know what true aloneness feels like?

We must not fall in love with Dunya, my dear: not while Jannah is waiting for us. And, also, we must know to bow not to creation – not now, and not ever – but to the One who created us. This is authentic liberation, and this is authentic strength. Be flowing, and be firm.

People are only people, and I think I have learnt, by now, that I am capable of walking alone. I ultimately ‘need’ nobody else. But I sure do love some people. For some of them, I am willing to wait. But they are not whom I seek to bend and grow towards. Maybe they are trying to walk the same way as I am trying to walk; perhaps we shall grow together, towards sunlight, intertwined… but maybe they are not, and we will not. Maybe sometimes we must love, and ‘have loved’, and we must leave it at that.

This moment: time, and the present workings of your life, of your mind. This is what is real, right now. I have found myself thinking too much about distant and imagined things, and all the while… the ink is ever-flowing, is it not? Writing, writing. Things are happening, happening. These are the days of my life; every second, I find myself authoring my life’s story. I will not give it up for any human being; for any fleeting thing.

I have realised that if it is not Real, it does not matter,

neither to, nor for, me: simple as.

So long as my feet are rooted in Truth. Myself, I seek to be, and become, in submission to, and with the love, protection, and guidance of, the One in whose Hand my entire being is. I so hope to feel that sense of peace, relief. To be worthy of  جَنَّةٍ عَالِيَةٍ, you know? 

To do this, and to get there, to outside-and-away from truth and here, (now), I must say goodbye.

To everything I know to be so true, hello. Things either matter, or they do not. There is what is Khayr; there is what is not Khayr. I am learning to filter things, along these lines, better.

We are growing individually, though in parallel, I hope, towards being People of the Right Hand. Asking ourselves: in this very moment, if we were to go right now,

Would we be worthy of entering Jannah?


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

Concise Compositions: Ageing

Someday – if good friend Time doth permit it, that is – our hair will become made of silver. There will be fine lines – like those cracks that trees sometimes make, in pavements – beneath our eyes, and around our smiles. Our voices will sing of old age; nostalgia will be what sweetens our tea.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to reach old age, though. To look behind at a life nearing graceful completion.

I hope I do accept it gracefully.

It is a relatively alarming prospect, though: the idea of being so dependent on others, again. Coming full circle, almost. That post-birth dependence, then the pre-death one, I suppose.

Life peaks, maybe, somewhere in its middle. But we do not go downhill from there. Maybe we will come to see the entire world in different ways. Maybe senility will give us that gift of child-like wonder all over again.

But I hope that family holds us while we do so. When walking down the stairs becomes harder, and when we ask those same questions, over and over again. Perhaps we will be grandmothers and grandfathers, beloved by those jumpy and joy-giving little beings.

How much wisdom will we be able to impart unto them, for their use? How different will the world look? Will we remember what it was ever like, to be that young?

I’ve forgotten just where I read about this, but often old people – women, in particular – look back on their youthful days, and they think about how beautiful they had been, back then, and about how much they didn’t know it. But they know it now, in retrospect. [Aw!]

I want to live in a complete way; I want to have stories to tell

[Insha Allah!].

  • The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck! 

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020 

On Debating

“Point of information!”

“No thank you,” accompanied by a simple ‘sit right back down’ gesture. 

 

Debating is, undoubtedly (and when done properly!) an art form – the art form that concerns facts, figures, rhetorical devices, humanity, logic galore. Impassioned speeches, appeals to the…humanness… of humans (to all three – logos, pathos, and ethos – components). Witty comebacks, tensions, a heightened sense of intellectualism, coupled with a (deliberately) heightened sense of its seeming opposite, emotion. Disagreements and/or discovery, with a necessary helping of civility and perhaps a touch of theatricalism. 

Recently I came across what would appear to be an ongoing post-debate debate – an  intellectual back-and-forth – between two of my most favourite debaters. And it really got me thinking about what the point of debates might be, as well as the foolishness of the use of personal attacks, among other things.

Honestly (and my apologies if I sound glib and condescending here but) I do pity those who have never been part of a debate club before, or who have not taken part in a debate before. Of course, some debates take place ‘informally’ (i.e. without formal adjudicators and/or hosts and moderators) – at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park (London), over dinner tables [I have this one uncle who has always, since my childhood, initiated ‘deep conversations’ and debates with me – on topics ranging from time and space, to the properties of water. I have him to thank for so much – insert cheese – of who I am and for how I think, today] and indeed while with friends, talking about certain things.

Something that is not fun, in my humble opinion, is constant argument – bickering. Arguing for the sake of arguing; tendencies that tend towards utter solipsism. Indubitably, the point of debating should not be the surrender to, nor the ardent nurture of, the ego.

Ah, formal debating, how I miss thee. The unparalleled joys – the motion being set; things being set in motion. Moments of inspiration under timed constraints, rushing to brainstorm various things on paper, trying to get your team to agree on things and to complement one another. You will forgive me, dear reader, for my shameless displays of nerdiness here, but the rush. Knowing how to win over the audience; knowing how – and when – to expose perceived faults in the opponents’ lines of reasoning.

But, thinking bigger here, the point of debating is not to commit to consistently being right. Something that I love about traditional debate clubs and competitions is that sometimes one is forced to assume a place on the opposite side of the table – to argue for something that normally, one disagrees with. What does this do – what benefits could come from this? These particular challenges do much to boost a person’s cognitive skills, as well as one’s capacities for empathy – for appreciating a range of perspectives.

The person representing the view or idea being debated is undoubtedly important. I must stress the aforementioned point that we are human, centrally emotional creatures. We love humour and narratives and imagery, among other things. And any debate would just be… fleshless, robotic … without all of the things that render it a potentially brain-stimulating, mind-expanding art form.

Rhetorical questions, lists, statistics, anecdotes. Points of information, rebuttals. Anacoluthon, analogies, apophasis, anadiplosis, litotes. And in bigger debates, the unique opportunity to witness the power of your words in action, (potentially) shaping the atmosphere of the entire hall.

And then, some of the things to steer clear of: ipsedixitisms [I love that word], shouting and heckling [you’d think that the folks who sit on those infamous green benches over at Parliament would be above all this puerile stuff, at their ages and in their positions. But, alas… the House of Commons might as well be renamed ‘the House of Heckles’. Many MPs, with all due respect, often debate in a completely uninspired manner, sometimes just reciting statistics from a piece of paper, sometimes not even including any facts in their addresses at all. Some even take naps on those very benches while debates go on. But I digress. Order! Order!] And then, of course, there’s the ever-prevalent tendency of things to sometimes be taken a little bit too far… thus leading to things descending into hyper-emotionality, irrationality, and ad hominems – personal attacks, which do nothing to bolster or undermine any actual arguments. In general, these signify a pathetic attempt to divert attention away from the actual topic at hand, and more towards a (pathetic) battle between egos.

Something I need to constantly remember, in any debate-resembling situation (that is not an actual formal debate where the very point is to stubbornly stick to a view even if I myself do not agree with it – though even then, my ultimate purpose should be to learn something, no?) is that intentions are paramount. What is my intention here? To prove that I am ‘right’, at any cost, even if I am actually wrong? And, are they attacking me or just a view of mine that I may sometimes mistake as being an unchangeable part of my identity? And, am I being fair to them? Am I truly listening to what they are saying? Do I really, truly agree with these views I have chosen to be a spokesperson for, or am I simply being unproductively stubborn, deploying ego defence mechanisms where, perhaps, they are unneeded? 

I love that debates can easily become awfully – tremendously – conceptual, abstract. You put some sort of ideology or view – all these intangible things, figuratives, potentials – on a metal plate, under surgical lighting. And you proceed to poke and jab at them; attempt to dissect it from a a range of different perspectives. What might the economic implications be? And the political ones? How would this motion affect…women? What might the physical sciences have to say, on the matter [oof, pun not intended, but what a pun indeed, right]? All in all, I have learnt so much from partaking in, and from watching, debates – both formal and informal ones. I have learnt about Islam, about Philosophy, about abortion, the education system… Knowledge in action, interdisciplinary considerations, and all this (hopefully,) with a fine helping of humanness and enjoyability: this all makes the learning component so easy!

Usually, with these things, there is no single ‘right’ answer. And perhaps this is one of the things that makes such oratory duels so interesting. No two people are the same; people’s perspectives – the bases of their speeches – tend to be wholly unique, too.

One can – and should – always try to respect a debating ‘opponent’ (partner) and their humanity. Ad hominem attacks ought to be avoided at all costs – and, actually, from my observations, it is clear that the use of these personal attack tools (falsely) promise a quick and easy way out – and to ‘victory’. It is easy – and quite pathetic – to state or insinuate that a Muslim dialectical partner is being… threatening or ‘terroristic’, or that a woman who identifies as a feminist is being ‘whingey’, or that someone who is a supporter of the political right is, by default, a ‘Nazi’. Ad hominems – insults – can be effective in causing offence to, perhaps disgruntling, one’s opponents. But they do nothing to fortify one’s own arguments; if anything, they only perceptively undermine one’s integrity and authority in the given dialectical situation. So, respecting human beings is paramount [- that is, if you buy into the whole ‘innate value’ thing. If you are, instead, of the opinion that this is a wholly indifferent universe, in which we are happy accidents and biological robots with no objective morality or purpose, then… you… do your thing.]

But also, the merits of freedom of speech should certainly never be overlooked! We (only, really) become more learned and wise through discussing things with others; in the process, we may grow in security in terms of sticking with certain views of ours. Or, we may find ourselves outgrowing certain views.

Anecdote time: before beginning my time at sixth form (which was almost three years ago, now – wow!) I had always staunchly identified myself as a feminist and as a leftist- in terms of everything. And, it is true what they [who is ‘they’? And is it the same ‘they’ that DJ Khaled constantly expresses remonstrances with?] say – about how the issue with definitions is that they tend to result in us overlooking the capacity for change, and sometimes, for nuance. This notion had certainly held true for me, during the majority of my pre-Year Twelve days. And what did it result in? An inability to truly see and listen to the other side.

It can be so easy to dehumanise, in our minds, people who share very different views from us – and to create false dichotomies. Us versus them, us versus them, us versus them.

But, at sixth form, I met a friend who also loves debating. And we would debate all the time. I must admit, I began to take things a little too personally when we began to discuss topics like racism, sexism, and Islam, respectively. But this friend – who is different to me in terms of race, religion, gender, political leanings – truly challenged some of my established ways of thinking. He remained respectful throughout all of these discussions of ours, even when it would have been easy for him to resort to actual personal attacks; props to him for this.

I ended up learning a lot from him. I ended up developing my critical thinking skills, through these debates, and as a result of them, some of my views certainly changed.

Now, another random tangent [which makes sense, because this friend and I used to debate in our Maths class, the most] – I used to love debating with Twitter trolls, back when I was fourteen years old. Why? I don’t really know. I probably just wanted to debate more, but Debate Club (which I had acted like it had been a personality trait of mine that I had been President of. Weird, weird flex) had unfortunately come to an end. So I debated topics like politics and Hadiths on Twitter, and learnt much through researching to take part in these arguments, along the way. And insults like the P-word (something I had been called a couple of times, when I was younger, by random strangers), insults pertaining to my being Muslim, and a Muslim woman, at that… they were all hurled at me, left, right and centre.

Now, this aforementioned friend of mine – he had experienced his fair share of ad hominem insults, too. Labelled a Nazi, for stupid reasons, when his own grandparents had campaigned against the Nazis during the War.

These labels are not helpful. They prevent us from being able to really see people, and their humanness. Echo chambers are not helpful. Bad manners in debates simply just have the adverse effect of pushing people further away from what you want them to come to understand. And, surely, every person you meet has something – at least one thing – that you can learn from them. So (I hope you will) debate. And, welcome debate.

Some pet hates of mine, though: that… academic arrogance that can often be brought into such discussions. Stubbornness, mocking others, those ice-cold glares, at times. Seeking leverage through means of big words and sophism. If your views are defendable, I entreat you to defend them! Your views need not be permanent; your mind need not be in a state of closed-ness and stagnation.

Debating: I think it is wonderful, and, when done well, is one of the greatest skills a person can have. Enjoyable, a potentially hugely educational thing to do, facilitating discovery and connections between communities.

Words can indeed change worlds; debating is one of the very cornerstones of democracy and of intellectualism. But it can all become extremely ugly when what should be a battle of ideas – the things we ought to place on that dialectical silver plate [main course: discourse!] – devolves into a senseless exchange of personal attacks, or indeed, when people gratuitously take things too personally [e.g. “I love to debate. But I hate it when people want to debate about Christianity, since I am a Christian and these are my views and I don’t want to hear opposing views”] or when irrationalism, along the same lines, is allowed to take centre-stage: “I believe in this thing because I believe in it. Because… I believe in it. And that is all.”

Put the thing on the plate – first. And let this be the focus, the centre, the point, of it all.

Also, argumentation for the sake of argumentation is futile and foolish. It’s like that quote: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” [Edward Abbey]. I find myself being deeply sceptical of (most) things being done for the sake of… themselves. In debating, this is precisely what provides the perfect breeding ground for ego-based bickering, arrogance, irrationality, the counter-productive encouragement of close-minded behaviours.

Intentions and intentionality, maintaining good Adab – decorum, decency, humanness – and having a purpose, there and then, which is perhaps greater than the lodging of your flag into someone else’s ego. These are certainly some debate-related principles that I seek to go forward with.

And oh, how I long to be in a debate club again. 


Sadia Ahmed, 2020 

Relax

This week, I have learnt a quintessential life lesson: when things become unbearable, step back and relax for a while. This may seem like a simple concept, however in the current fast-paced, indomitably frenetic society we live in, relaxation is- no doubt- something that is easier said than done. 

I am a Year 11 student, currently in the process of studying for my upcoming GCSE exams (85 days remaining!). At the start of the academic year, I made a vow to myself. I told myself that I would work hard, and that I would have no zero days- no days utterly devoid of any work, even if that meant dragging myself out of bed to work on some coursework while gradually dying due to being a sorry victim of the flu.

Granted, I have had no ‘zero days’, but throughout the academic year, there have been times when my body pleaded me to stop- to relax, to allow my brain to heal itself. I know that I have been unduly dismissive of the signals my brain has been sending. I disregarded them as excuses for procrastination, but in reality, I needed to relax.

My ultimate advice to fellow students is to create a revision timetable, but within this timetable, allow yourself some time to take a walk, or have a bubble bath, or even to just stare at the ceiling for a while. Your mental and physical health are a thousand times more important than any letter on a grade sheet. That being said, education is vital, and we are fortunate enough to have such amazing opportunities at our very fingertips.

So, fellow comrades: work hard, sleep well, exercise, and treat yourself- chocolate doughnuts were made to be consumed. 


Sadia Ahmed, 2017

Career Crisis

At fifteen years old, I have recently withdrawn myself from an intense existential crisis about my personal identity, however I now find myself entering a new phase of crisis: a career crisis, even though I have never actually had a career. 

It genuinely surprises me how often the topic of future career options springs up in daily conversation. I am habitually asked about what I would like to become in the future, by my friends, my parents’ friends, teachers, and even fellow passengers on public transport. I am a very ambitious person, and I would undoubtedly like to make something of my life by impacting the world in a positive way, but in truth, at present, I do not know precisely what I wish to become in the future. There are tens of thousands of potential choices out there, and I cannot narrow my options down at this point- I have yet to take my GCSE exams, let alone decide unequivocally on what my life will look like in ten years’ time.

The incessant questioning regarding my desired career path has led me to think about the world of work, and where I would fit into it. I have realised that our society and every single industry within it shares one particular thing in common: they each rely on human problems. Businesses exploit problems to make a profit; doctors solve health-related problems; lawyers deal with conflicts, which are a human problem. Problems are absolutely essential to the progression of our society, but society will never be perfect. As humans, we have all found ourselves in this futile search for perfection, both on a personal and wider scale. When people ask me about what I would like to become in the future, I now rephrase the question in my mind, and instead, I ask myself: what qualities, skills and interests do I have, and how can I harness these to solve a particular set of problems in society?

Ideas about my potential future career choices have changed drastically over the years. First, I wanted to be a teacher, and/or a journalist. Then, my interests changed for a while, and I wanted to become a doctor…then I was absolutely certain that I would become an astronaut…but then I developed an interesting in the field of engineering…and then (more recently) I thought about becoming a lawyer, but not one who defends criminals. Instead, I wanted to be a lawyer who would defend the human rights of civilians in war-torn areas of the world, such as Palestine and Syria. When I told my prying teachers about this potential choice of career path, I was met with strong disapproval. My teachers assured me that there were ‘better’ options for me out there- options that would make me more wealthy and ‘successful’.

Ultimately, the average salaries of people in different industries will, no doubt, be a relatively important contributing factor to the career path I end up deciding on, but for me, money is certainly not a central element. I would like a job that will be decently financially rewarding, but most importantly, I desire a job that will be morally uplifting- a job in which I feel challenged (enough to feel fulfilled) and secure and satisfied – a job that will harness my abilities and constantly stimulate my mind. In the meantime, however, I will live most contentedly in the present. I will work hard and focus on expanding my mind and bettering myself as a person.

And I will stop and smell the roses. 

Why GCSEs are a problem

Every British student has his or her own story to tell when it comes to the topic of GCSEs. There are the ridiculously bright, organised and perpetually energetic who jump with glee at the thought of endless hours of revision. Then there are the other 99% of the British teen population: the insanely intelligent and unique individuals who are not particularly compatible with the GCSE system of broad memorisation.

This article is dedicated to all of you: the brilliant, creative beings who have been labeled “dumb” or “lazy” due to your reluctance to sit down for hours on end, memorising an abundance of pointless information; the ones currently suffering from anxiety or depression or ADHD, so revision becomes synonymous with torture; the teens whose lives are currently too unstable for them to bear the burden of the responsibility of such a task, and, of course, the model students who suffer endlessly for their grades. I understand you, and I believe in you. You are not stupid or incompetent, and the system has failed you.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

To any non-Brits reading this article who are wondering what on Earth GCSEs are, they are a series of examinations fifteen and sixteen-year-olds take here in the UK, across eight to fifteen subjects in total. Most of these tests rely not on creativity, practical skills or logic; they rely primarily on memory retention. Imagine having to memorise subject content (usually about three textbooks of information for each subject) across numerous subjects. Some students have to sit over thirty exams- exams that do not focus on a particular career path, but across a desultory range.

Of course, as a keen socialist, I am all for education- it is the key to success both on a personal and global basis. However, that being said, the GCSE system here in the UK is in desperate need of reform. Not only does it counterproductively dull down intelligence and creativity, it also does little to prepare young individuals for life in the real world, especially in the digital age.

The system has failed to modernise- the constructors of the GCSE system must be unaware of the existence of Google. We do not need to memorise useless dates such as when the NHS Act was introduced, nor do we need to memorise complex algebraic functions or how dust precipitators work. The education of our generation- Generation Alpha- is being placed into the hands of a group of old, incompetent, privileged politicians who are simply making it increasingly difficult for the underprivileged to succeed.

GCSE grades lull high achieving students into a false sense of security and subsequent academic arrogance (which is sometimes absolutely demolished come A-levels) and give underachieving students the false impression that they are stupid and good for nothing. The truth is, not every GCSE Physics student will grow up to become a Physicist, and the same can be said for every other GCSE subject. Everyone excels at something- whether it be painting, baking, engineering or politics- and everyone deserves to be commended for their talents, irrespective of whether or not they were able to bag 10 A*s at GCSE level.

I do not, in any way, believe that GCSEs should be scrapped altogether, however I believe they are in desperate need of reform; the British education system must keep with the times, make learning more accessible and enjoyable (without leaving students with a feeling of perpetual exhaustion and dread), and do a better job at preparing us for the future.


Sadia Ahmed, 2016