It’s a common lament: we sit there in the mosque, week after week, uninspired and bored. There is nothing for us here, we sigh, listening to the unintelligible oration. But perhaps we are the lucky ones: we have attended the prayer elsewhere in other towns and listened to sermons in English so dreadful and lame that we can only leave in a state of perpetual irritation. Perhaps the sermon in a foreign tongue is a small mercy. Perhaps. This is the lamentable state we find ourselves in.
I was inspired while in Turkey this summer to start doing regular exercise. Perhaps inspiration is the wrong word; perhaps I mean shamed, when my companions mocked my skinny frame repeatedly. On my return a month ago, I sent a message to a friend to ask if he might train me. He agreed, but I am yet to start; my fault, not his. This year must mark 20 years since I last did any serious exercise. No, I had a brief spell at university when a friend set out to increase me in strength and stamina. But since then: the only time I run these days is when I’m late for Jummah prayer.
Our experiences in our youth do tend to have long-lasting effects. The perpetual humiliation of every games lesson at school did much to dissuade me from pursuing sport thereafter. My friends are well aware of the allergic reaction I have whenever any of them mentions playing rugby or cricket; it is a true phobia in every sense. But something has to change. I have warned my friend that I will starting from zero — and I mean it — but the task ahead is necessary, if I ever find the motivation to take the first step. Change is always difficult.
I have been reading this wonderful blog on and off for a while now: muslimrunner.wordpress.com. It is very inspiring. I used to quite like running, although I was never very good at it. I might have pursued it had I not had teachers who delighted in putting their less talented students down and eradicating their self-esteem. Blimey: that was over twenty years ago and yet still I bang on about it. It’s time to get out of the rut, I guess. Time to make a change.
Silence settled; I held hushed fear. Fear of sins returning to haunt. You changed, rearranged, but like heaven and hell, your mark remains in that gruesome book. No forgiveness or recognition, because they never saw your deconstruction and the reconstruction that followed.
I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by; exploitative, consumptive bodies, self-constructed images dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes. Dancing in the sweat of created images, consumed. Gasping for air, I died, drowning in the reality of the foul lies I puddled around me.
My silence and fear. Hidden behind masks, disguised as a character unknown, I grasp at anonymity, watching –admiring– guests and relatives new. Fear of those whispers; telegram awaiting; please read out the African tongue. ‘Anyone but me, please.’ I changed, never pleaded forgiveness, though sorry I was, for I turned my back and denied that past. And yet you never understood; my deconstruction and reconstruction. Here you remind me of what I preferred be forgotten, like God on judgement day reminding me of every sin I made, though I regretted it long ago. To you the speech of that African tongue was not a single thing; but to me like awaiting God’s final call. Unrepented sins returning to the mind, your sorrow, your regret, ignored. Just like that, you changed, turned away from your blinded past, but no one can see now. All the same stereotypes; the same offensive view.
A generous brother’s wedding reception, the speeches halfway through. In Afro-Caribbean company, sister-in-law and all, the message from the African state gets pushed across the room. To you, only a happy sign, a message of goodwill, but to me, shaped like a nightmare, ready to curse me for my greed. Read the African tongue; I whisper, ‘What’s the need?’ You hear the message, but I only reflect on the image of my soul. Like softest soul; those stereotypes; purity, goodness, gold. The ist in me, not with hate, but in stereotyping empathy. I wished it lost, and perhaps it is, but in me I felt those who know, see. Old me, same construction, no de or re.
I read the words, pronounced the sounds, but all I held was anger. Memories of other times; sell myself, prove a point, display my selfish greed. Reggae played unnaturally loud in Caribbean company; right on displayed, but actually tastelessly off. Suggesting messages of freedom and equality in ear shot of the passing Nigerian. Telling the South African associate, quite indirectly, that not all your friends are white. ‘Ethnic’ names dropped into conversations, always passively of course. And look around, what do you know? A poster of Martin Luther King stuck upon the wall.
Past times I hoped to bury, immaturity I hoped to burn. Skin used to fight me with words aimed, but I would just deny. ‘That’s not me.’ My fight with Skunk Anansie, but sadly it was me. No guilt of hate, of name calling, or bullying, but guilt of stereotyping empathy. Pages filled with poetry, arguing, justifying; satisfying myself of my very existence; all denial that she had mouthed the truth.
Yet consciousness of colour was not ingrained naturally in me. The saddest irony of all; my ism became from a workshop on the problem of those ists. Through the South African who suggested that white people were generally racist, an innocence of unconsciousness quickly drained away. Now I had something to prove. From an unconscious wanderer, a constructed ist became. But as an ist, I never realised, until I saw the reflection of myself in characters passing by. An exploitative, consumptive body, a self-constructed image dwelling in pools of the commonest stereotypes, I immersed myself to drown. Emerged to be myself, changed and re-invented, but my face was still the same, so you thought I was still the same and, ignorant of my dishonest past, the way it troubled me so, you watched me stand reluctantly and I spoke your words at last.