Conquering darkness

In the two years before I first uttered my shahada, I came to fancy myself as a fine writer, although my only real talent was to have the patience to hammer out a million words on a keyboard in the middle of the night for months on end. I had two self-printed novels to show for my efforts, which I shared with friends and family, accidentally revealing my woeful illiteracy.

When I became Muslim, I initially shunned my investment in creative writing, for I feared that the act of fictional storytelling would impact negatively on my efforts to cleanse my heart and soul. Yet over the months and years that followed I would periodically return to this hobby, convincing myself that I could put my supposed abilities to the service of my deen. Over the next few years a number of new works would be born, sometimes competing for my time, but mostly languishing on my computer.

Five years after that blessed day which opened up this new world to me, I would shun my writing once more, this time taking steps to finalise it by physically destroying my work. It was part of my repentance; the embodiment of my mission to overcome the darkness of my soul. Weeks later I would regret my hasty actions, lamenting the loss of a novel I had invested so much in. I procured a piece of data recovery software, restored whatever I could from the hidden depths of my computer’s hard disk, and spent the rest of the decade deriding my puritanical rage. Indeed, five years after my decision to eradicate the last vestiges of my novel, I made the opposite decision to revisit it and ultimately publish it. I thought I was ready to embrace a piece of my being from my days before faith.

And so it was that at the beginning of this year, I finally set it free, releasing it into the wilds. I published it as a brick of a paperback and as an eBook, momentarily confident of its prospects. It survived out there for two months before I had a change of heart. Now, as with everything I write, I cannot bear to read it back to myself. I have shunned it once more, writing off my time spent editing it as a lesson learned and my financial investment as cutting my losses. Now I look back on that day in 2003 when I sought to destroy the work for good, no longer with that derision of mine; instead I tell myself that it was probably the right decision. I had a chance a decade ago to escape the darkness of my soul, but I was not prepared back then to commit to the hard road ahead.

Now I stand at the same juncture once more, having that same conversation within: whether to purify my soul of all that holds it back, or to try to reconcile my darkness to my light. I am in a better place to succeed today, perhaps, in that I have a better understanding of the world of the writer: that most writers are never read, that most writers expend an incredible effort that is never rewarded, that for the most part it is a waste of time and energy. A decade ago I probably believed that I was an excellent writer, destined to succeed. Today I recognise that I am a mediocre writer, possessor of mixed reviews, some quite positive, but most very negative indeed. To give up writing against such a backdrop no longer seems a hideous, insurmountable sacrifice; rather, it feels like the right thing to do.

True, I lament the unfinished drafts on my computer. I lament that they may never see the light of day. But now I ask myself another question: will I really be questioned on that Awesome Day about those stories I decided not to set free, or about the obligations and prohibitions of our deen? Only a small part of me yearns to write fiction now. Mostly I have resigned to turning my back on that world, for the redemption of my soul. This time around it is less puritanical rage than resignation. The time has come to conquer the darkness of my soul.

Verily mankind is ungrateful

There is something wrong with me at the moment. I don’t know what it is, but my emotions are heightened, I am on edge, easily upset and completely inconsistent. I have been like this for two months now, swinging between the strangest misery and confused folly. The misery reveals itself in the tears that well up for no apparent reason from the tiniest seed. The folly in the quick humour which rises rapidly and then dies.

I seem to be dissatisfied with myself. My heart aches, feeling heavy in my chest. On my return from Turkey I quizzed myself about my unhappiness and decided that I could change it by returning to the Smythian keyboard and reignite my “Copious Footnotes”. This lasted barely two weeks. It was followed by a yearning to start a cottage-industry publishing house called “The Othello Press”. I don’t know if this will lead anywhere. Then there was the “Blogistan” project, to which I contributed five articles before hurriedly retracting four of them again, turning my back on the site because of the melancholy which overcomes me. It is all ups and downs, backwards and forwards, proposals and withdrawals.

At work I want to be a writer, then a graphic designer, next an IT trainer, then a communications officer; and now, just as I’m offered an interview for the latter, I’m resigned once more to my role. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a better day; maybe it will be good for me down the line. Perhaps it is not so bad.

Verily mankind is ungrateful. My first job after university was very comfortable. I earned a better salary then that I ever have since. It was located on a country estate outside Maidenhead, in converted stables between a lovely walled garden and a grand mansion with manicured grounds. The Chairman liked his fast cars but he was generous to us, keeping the fridge stocked up every week to provide his staff with free lunch. For some reason, though, I was dissatisfied. Dissatisfied despite a great wage for the simplest of graphic design work.

When the company downsized after the slump in the market following the attacks on the United States in September 2001 and I was out of a job, I started up my own business offering publishing services. This was a situation where I was in the position to do what I most love: creating beautiful books. Alas I was dissatisfied once more, even though I was given the opportunity to typeset challenging works such as “The History of the Qur’anic Text”. There had to be something better, I told myself, and so I moved onto new ground. I ended up as Office Manager in a busy training department. I was responsible for a team of administrators, got to produce newsletters and a directory of courses, develop the intranet and do many interesting things. Yet again I became dissatisfied and so the cycle started again.

What is it that drives me over the edge again and again? Why is it that I am never satisfied with what I have? Is my situation not better than the poor soul who sets up his table on a bridge over the Bosporus every evening in Istanbul to sell ice cold, bright yellow lemonade to hot and tired commuters? Indeed, is my situation not better than those dry, scorching days I spent administering an internet café in the summer of 2003, with the fumes of traffic numbing my brain? Or the days spent serving prickly Thai and unsophisticated Lebanese cuisine to three hundred customers over lunchtime off Berkley Square?

Perhaps it is pride. “I have an Masters Degree, you know?” Pride, which makes me think that the job I am doing is never good enough. “I don’t need a Degree to do this job, do I?” Pride which gets in the way of an honest day’s work, making it seem worthless and you worthless as a result. I think it is. I think I am stumbling away from a path I once knew when I was younger and more devoted to treating a lump of flesh beneath my ribs.

One of the first books I was given to read when I became Muslim in 1998 was “The Purification of the Soul”. I think it is time that I returned to this work and others like it, recognising what it is that is creating this unease. My soul has been neglected as the smog and noise of a violent and political world obscure the reality of faith.

Oh my Lord, put comfort back into my heart and do not let me die other than one who has earned Your pleasure. Take away this heaviness and ache in my chest and replace it with lightness and appreciation of the sweetness of all of Your blessings. Oh my Lord, let me return to You with a good heart. Amin.