Reflections on Qurbani

I have become rather passive of late. The practice of my deen has been confined pretty much to the performance of the five prayers; I don’t think I am in a very good place spiritually and my relationship with my Lord is strained by the sins I willfully pile upon others. All those passions that once burned in the pursuit of the truth just smoulder now. I hold fast to my prayers for they are the refuge of the believer, but that feverish sprint of old has been replaced by half-hearted resignation, suffocation under the weight of my sins.

The days of the Hajj crept up on me therefore. In the battle between my emboldened nafs it seemed the ten days might just pass me by as I succumbed to yet another fruitless conspiracy from within. I managed to fast one day, but had aspired momentarily for more, until the usual petitions from within made them but intentions. I had planned to fast on the day of Arafat, for I longed to eradicate my sins of the past year and the year to come, but lost track of the lunar calendar as I prepared to travel to Turkey once more. I believe it was Saturday, when I flew from Istanbul to neighbouring Georgia. I wish I had made more effort, but I was preoccupied by my journey and failed to rise for sahoor in the morning. Alas it was another fast ignored.

And all of a sudden it was Eid — or Bayram as they call it here. I was reunited with my family for the first time in three months, which itself was a great blessing. The children had grown a lot in the intervening weeks, but they had not forgotten me. The Eid prayer is always a strange affair, whether here or at home. Back home it is a cross between an Urdu cultural event and an Annual General Meeting, with the mosque finances described in intricate detail — commendable transparency, but hardly the source of spiritual uplift. Here — well clearly I am a visitor, a stranger looking in on a Turkish version of the same event. The small village mosque is packed full, the more religious types downstairs listening keenly to the imam, the embarrassed Muslims and atheists upstairs, talking and sniggering to one another throughout. It used to bother me that confirmed atheists attend the Eid prayer — perhaps because I had been on the receiving end of their wrath on many a preceding evening — but now I find myself playing the part of the humble stranger who knows his place: this is their tradition, their culture. Let this religious puritan desist in these arrogant thoughts. So now I sit upstairs too because I arrive too late to find room downstairs and try to tune in to the correct voice.

After the prayer there are the Eid greetings with the old men who knew my late father-in-law, projecting onto me his piety as they commend my return. The youthful Muslim from England is a novelty that never seems to grow stale, although my familiarity with my true state causes pangs of regret. We exchange salams, ‘Bayrum mubarek olsun,’ and then I return to the house. The morning is then spent receiving drop-in guests, who stop by to exchange Eid greetings, drink tea, eat cake and move on. It is a joyous occasion; back home, our Eids are generally modest affairs, spent alone or in the company of friends.

In truth, this Eid is a mundane affair back home. I have always given money to one charity or another to have my Qurbani dispensed on my behalf for poor people somewhere, elsewhere, over there. While I would justify this to myself by recalling that there are many in the world who rarely have access to meat, I suspect that my intentions are mixed. Many of us — though happy to consume meat — are squeamish when it comes to making a connection between grazing animals and the food on our plates. And the spectre of a day of slaughter — though such slaughter occurs daily in abattoirs worldwide — brings that connection too clearly to the fore.

A number of years ago I went with a Turkish friend in the UK to an abattoir, where he intended to perform his Qurbani. What I saw there was so far removed from my idea of what halal means that it pretty much put me off eating meat altogether. All those ideas of not letting an animal see another animal being killed, of slaughtering with care, of calming the animal down, were wholly ignored on the mechanised production line operated there. Sheep were unloaded from a lorry outside, pushed onto a conveyor belt to be turned into carcases in quick succession, all in view of other living creatures clearly desperate to escape their fate. If people see this and think halal, no wonder they protest — even as they munch on their Big Mac.

I have not thought about animals at Eid in the UK since. My money goes somewhere thousands of miles away, to buy an animal I will never see — like the animals that feed me throughout the year — which will then be slaughtered, its meat distributed to feed the poor. It provides a comfortable narrative that requires minimal personal engagement. Little thought is given either to the animal or the poor. This year would be different.

We hoped that by the time I returned to Turkey, our little house on the hill would be complete, ready for us to live in for a little while before our ultimate return home. Alas I may have arrived a few weeks too early and so we would have to find accommodation elsewhere. We had already resolved, however, to offer a Qurbani at the house and continued to plan to do so. I had in mind feelings of worry and sadness — given my past encounters, this was my great sacrifice — but as I have already mentioned, I have been rather passive of late. I was not wildly animated by the thought of what was to come, no sickly feeling of dread arose in my stomach — and all the time I was reminding myself of my remorseful hypocrisy, for I will gladly eat meat all year around. The only difference now was that I was required to make a real connection between food and its source.

That connection was a living creature in the barn at the back of the house — a sheep with a short fleece, perhaps advanced in years. It is not exactly grazing country around here — most of the land is given over to tea cultivation — so my wife and I had to walk up the village to beg a bag of hay from a family that keeps cows for milk. They kindly obliged and we returned some time later to feed the animal in the barn. It was clearly a creature of the herd and unused to one-to-one interactions with humans, but with some persuasion it took to taking some hay from my hands. What a strange feeling: to show an animal kind benevolence, knowing that tomorrow you will take away its life.

On the second day of Eid, we travelled up to our land with the sheep in the back of the pickup. The children laughed whenever it spoke and even stroked it and talked to it when we arrived — before I sent them off to collect fruit with their aunt so they wouldn’t witness the event. What amazed me — and what was so far removed from what I witnessed at the abattoir — was how calm the animal was as it lay down on the ground; it was not in a panic like those other animals I had seen. When it was finally slaughtered, it was as if the moment before its death and the moment afterwards were the same. Perhaps having watched too many gruesome films in my life, I didn’t expect it to die as quickly as that and with so little resistance.

As I helped the slaughter man prepare the carcass afterwards, first removing the sheepskin, many thoughts went through my mind. The major thread centred on the way we — the urban consumer — disassociate ourselves from the difficult matters of our existence. Food, and especially meat production, is the great plank of it — we delegate the messy business of the slaughter of cows, sheep, chickens and all sorts to unseen men and women in unseen factory units out of town. Ideally, our meat should come prepacked in a nice hygienic plastic tray with a plastic film cover, labeled in colourful ink with cooking instructions included. But we delegate a lot of other messy stuff too. Our wars are fought by young professional soldiers brought up on propaganda we intelligent folk would never fall for. We outsource all kinds of killing because we’re far too squeamish to deal with the realities of our existence — our over-reliance on oil, water, natural gas and coltan. Perhaps if we were more actively engaged in the activities that feed our way of life we might begin to change it a little.

Other thoughts came later, after the meat had been prepared. The donation of money for an overseas Qurbani always centres on the poor, yet I’m not sure how much I have really thought about the recipients. The generic poor have a generic life story, which laments their poverty and hardship, while consigning them to a different category of humanity. To meet a real individual with a real family with particularly needs, wants, desires, pain and suffering tells a different story about the value of Qurbani. To witness their happiness at receiving their first taste of meat in perhaps months or a year. To listen to their duas, to see their tears. To realise how fortunate you are and how blessed you were.

All in all, the non-passive Qurbani provided many lessons for me, some of which I am still pondering. We ate our share of the meat yesterday afternoon, barbecued over the glowing logs in the wood burning stove. It was tasty — but even as I ate it, I remembered the animal in our barn that we had fed borrowed hay the day before. What strange connections we must negotiate throughout the years of our lives.

Of a mountain

The reality of this road is that it is difficult. It may be straight, but it is steep and at times rough, and often vulnerable to the molestations of bandits. As anyone who journeys to the highlands of any nation will know, the easiest route to the top of a mountain is via the winding road that hugs the contours of every hill and valley; the expedition takes an age as the road traverses mile upon mile, winding back upon itself repeatedly as it climbs higher and higher. The straight road appears the easier path at first, until the traveller encounters his first obstacle. As he ascends the great mountain, each time he thinks he is nearing its summit, another fold of hill appears above the crest he had set his hopes on. The path is straight, but it is patently hard.

My heart aches; I feel alienated. The simplistic Islam of unlearned teenagers—we do not eat pork and should not drink alcohol—is long forgotten. There can be no casual meander along this path, as I had once thought when I was weighing up whether to embrace what I believed to be true. It is a path of action, requiring us to move and reform, to stretch ourselves, to be much more than we are.  Each time we almost reassure ourselves that God will accept our undemanding nomadic faith—and forgive us our multitudinous shortcomings—new realities insist that this is not so. We wanted to believe that we had been granted paradise because we had been kind to a cat; we did not notice being cast into hell for the evil of another deed.

I don’t know if I will be able to shake these sins for which I am promised an unfortunate end and which distance me from my Lord. I have tried before, repeatedly, and failed. Once I learned that it was probably haram, years after I thought I knew all that was permissible and forbidden. But probably opened up a door for its return. Years ago, in those early days of my Islam, when a friend—himself learning of this path anew—took to running through what was allowed and what was not, I had learned that it was probably disliked. But disliked did not strike fear into this unfortunate believer as it does for his pious brethren. For months he would avoid it, striving on his path of reform, but disliked would eventually open the door to tolerated, and from there it would become halal.

But today a revelation: it is not just probably haram, but almost certainly haram. Almost being an atom’s weight of chance to the weight of the world that it is not. An unpalatable revelation that I have been sinning almost constantly for years on end, oblivious to words that clearly spell out the consequence in store for one who does not repent and turn away from it. As we self-righteously poured scorn on those who eat any old food, believing it to be permissible as the meat of the Jews and the Christians, and demanded that they desist, we forgot to take ourselves to account. By God, what a fool! With this revelation, undoubtedly they are better than I a thousand fold. How it had seemed I was walking in His Shade, dependent on His Mercy: suddenly a shocking revelation, that I was in fact walking in His Wrath.

Can I now desist? Will He grant me His mercy and enable me to overcome this hideous malady? Will He grant me an escape from this curse? To leave some of what was haram was made easy for me, alhamdulilah. Leaving intoxicants was painless, for I had only ever drunk alcohol for six months of my life, although unfortunately to excess for half of that period. Leaving it was simple because I had never liked it and I hated what I and my friends became in that state. God gave me the sense to leave it almost a year to the day before I came to believe in Islam. To abstain from consuming food and drink in the month of Ramadan too was made easy. As my skeletal frame revealed, I was not a slave to my stomach back then. I missed meals frequently and ate little. To fast was no great burden. I am grateful that God made leaving much of what is impermissible easy for me. What if I had been of those who must savour all kind of whiskies and wines, and learn to pronounce the names of European vineyards, who must accompany every meal with a cocktail of gin beforehand, beer for starters and red wine with red meat? To desist then would surely have been a burden likely to steer me away from the straight path.

But it seems, after all, that I had my trials too. Of course I have always been conscious of it; I have always known it to be wrong. But if I had known that it was not just wrong, but categorically forbidden from the outset, would I be where I am now? Wouldn’t I have abandoned it long ago, like riba, khamr and pork? Perhaps or perhaps not. Perhaps it was too pervasive, too deeply ingrained. Perhaps it had become too much of a habit, too much a part of me. Perhaps it was my wine.

I fear now returning to it. Oh, I have said that a thousand times before and I have returned to it. No, what I really fear is never being able to free myself from it and from sins like it. People have often advised me that we are not held account for our thoughts. But which thoughts? For there are those thoughts that flutter into our mind from nowhere, over which we have little control: surely it is these for which we shall remain unaccountable. But those thoughts over which we have full control, which are of the same instrument as our talking tongues and typing fingers, are surely to be questioned. As long as you do not act on them you will be safe, say some, but what is action? To think and dwell on the bad in them is surely action, for they enter the heart and stain it dark until it can retain no light. The heart dies from thoughts such as these. I know because I think them.

I have committed now to desisting from these sins, but I have been unable to throw myself down on my face before my Lord in proper repentance, for they are still here within. They are calling me back, trying to convince me that this realisation is misguided. And yet it is not that usual realisation—the result of reflection and guilt, of irritation in the heart, of a sense of the innate wrongness that descends moments later. This is not a realisation in that sense—not just the chattering of the soul. It is a realisation founded on knowledge: it is an acknowledgement of the prohibitions of our deen.

My schizophrenic soul is wrought in two. One half of me wants to pursue the path of righteousness; the other half wants to cast adrift, to hold fast to the dreams of another world. I know that when the Hour arrives I will look back and wish that I had listened to my better part. On that day of fifty-thousand years, when our life will have seemed but a blink of the eye, I will wonder why I could not have just been patient and held fast to that weak voice within. I will wonder why I turned my back on the promise of everlasting release for the sake of momentary, fleeting ease. I know what I shall think then. But just now, fifty-thousand years is unfathomable. These days, weeks, months and years seem too long to persist in righteousness.

I know I must repent now and return. The cost of repenting is great, but the price of not repenting is infinitely greater and infinitely worse. I know I must strive now, with a striving greater than previous strivings, for my distance from my Lord is now greater than ever. The voice that calls to righteousness is weak and feeble, like the parabolic mustard seed, and hardly calls me to truth any more. If I am to repent now, it will be against myself. It is like a warring cry, a declaration of war. Somewhere within, deep down, there is a feeble David, slingshot in hand. But it is Goliath that looks back wearily and with contempt. I fear the battle ahead.

There stands before me a great mountain. I stand on its foothills, unable even to see the crest of the first hill, let alone its peak. I know that my first step onwards must be repentance and a resolution never to return to my monotonous sins. Yes, of course I know, but will I? Can I make it to the mountain top?

Riotous Nafs

In this month of clemency, our Lord sent us a mercy in the form of a man who refused to fly into an unholy rage when his son was torn away from him in the midst of the anarchic disintegration that had seized a nation in the preceding hours. He has become an example for a nation; a light. Commentators on the Left and Right have hailed his humble, understated words as the voice of reason in a sea of chaos. He has been an embodiment of this holy month.

Every year in the weeks before Ramadan, strange thoughts flutter into my mind, planting a seed whose roots push far enough down into my heart that it will begin to sprout just as the fasting month begins. As my pious brethren set about welcoming the month of mercy, this soul heeds another call. It has long been clear that while the transgressions of the tongue derive from the whispers of the cursed one, these indiscretions come from within; from the soul of the self.

And so, even as I abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, the riotous nafs come into bloom. Each year the ailment is the same, provoking the same reaction, the same visions, the same plots and plans, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at its end. This year: in the first then days, when sensible believers are found seeking the Mercy of their Lord. Instead of imploring my Creator to forgive and guide me, I was found harbouring an argument within: between the soul that cherishes righteousness and the soul that prefers rebellion. The first was weak and feeble, petitioning unconvincingly of an imminent end; the second was brazen, unheeding and arrogant. In the conversations within, it was the seditious soul that appeared to be on the ascendency.

We might find that these long summer fasts in the northern hemisphere are a great mercy, though they may not seem that way as our stomachs growl and shrink, as our frames become skeletal, as our eyes droop with sleep. For where the long nights of the winter fasts provide broad avenues for feasting and misdemeanour, these long days and short nights seem to curtail the conspiracies of the mutinous soul. As the sun sets there is no return to normality, no recuperation for the dissenter within; there is time for food and then comes that heavy fatigue, from which there is apparently no escape.

A week ago there arose strange contrivances, demanding strategies for the weeks that will follow this blessed month, when we will believe ourselves free from the restraints that impose self-discipline upon us now. But suddenly — whether due to the du’a of a friend or stranger or to the exhaustion that accompanies us as the month wears on — those erroneous designs have left me. Now that brazen soul has become feeble, whispering when it can for a return to its plots and plans, but even it is unconvinced. The righteous soul is still nowhere to be found, resigning to the intervention of this weary hunger instead.

My pious brethren strive in this month; they stand their nights in prayer and whenever their nafs petition them to act upon their lowest calls, they turn their backs and pray some more. This soul can only look on in awe, for it is tiredness that restrains it now; not piety, not righteousness, not religious purity. This is a soul that would sin through a month of immense mercy, were it not for the constrictions of a summer fast.

Mine are riotous nafs, which would tear down all that is good for short term gains, of little worth or value. I have not been wronged, I remind myself, but I wrong myself. And England lost its senses last week, not for the call of the devil, for the devils are chained in Ramadan, but for the calls of a nation’s nafs. It took one man — a mercy from above — to remind us of a higher calling, of a better way. He was Ramadan incarnate, the word made flesh. For the Muslim, it takes these long thirsty days, these parched throats, this heavy sleep, the aches and pains — all of this — to burn away our unholy desires, to overcome our riotous nafs.

Who am I?

Who am I to pass judgement on the despair of the youngster who has only known this war, waged in his land since he was only four? Who am I to pass judgement on the man who lived and died dishonourably in East Harlem, who was eradicated in an instant in a hail of bullets splattered from beyond the blacked out windows of a Cadillac SUV? Who am I to pass judgement on a man who flew into a rage when his neighbour’s home was demolished by a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone? Who am I to pronounce and convict, to chastise and deconstruct? Who am I to judge, when all I have ever know is ease?

In pursuit of the garden

I always find it strange when I encounter those Muslims that sneer at their brethren who profess a love of gardens — common though these detractors are — writing them off as middle-class liberals (that meaningless insult of our era). It is not that for many of the poorest people around the world the garden is their sustenance, although this is undoubtedly true; it is the imagery of the garden that features so prominently within our tradition. Gardens beneath which rivers flow. Great gardens of luscious vegetation. The garden is a metaphor for all that is good, beautiful and desirous.

How strange then, that for some Muslims authenticity is found in urban sprawl, be it the poor ghetto of Muslim Cool or the marble, glass and steel visions of modern Arabia. The lovers of gardens are characterised as limp believers, somehow emasculated or weak. The tough, authentic Muslim would rather chop down the palm in the mosque courtyard, than water it and seek its shade. The Muslim who loves his garden is either a feminist, a sufi, middle-class, or — worst of all — all three. He is all that went wrong in Andalusia.

So a confession. I am a lover of gardens, both of the world and the hereafter. Our tradition speaks of each — Tis He Who produces gardens, both cultivated and wild, and palm-trees and crops of diverse kinds, both similar and dissimilar — and so I feel no shame in pursuing both.

For the first four years of our married life, my wife and I lived in a cramped flat in the roof of a big old converted house in west London. In summer it was like an oven, the large Velux windows in the sloping walls magnifying the heat of the sun like a greenhouse. In winter, the roof leaked, collecting a reservoir of water between the felt tiles and the plasterboard ceiling above us. It was no dream dwelling, but it was home and we were content through those years. Only, one thing was missing.

To compensate for our lack of garden, we teamed up with friends who lived a fifteen minute walk from our flat and together rented an allotment, which we shared for three years until they emigrated. When we started, we were the joke of the other allotment holders, because the only tools we possessed were a screwdriver and a hammer. The screwdriver, it turned out, was quite an effective tool for eking out the dandelions on the plot; the only problem was there were about five thousand of them. Over the months that followed, we gradually established a set of garden tools, built ourselves a shed and began to establish a garden retreat for our two flat-bound families.

When we began thinking about buying a house, it soon became clear that there was no way we would be able to afford anything in London, without both of us surrendering to the world of full-time employment for the rest of our lives. Much is made of a woman’s right to work, but the reality of life in London is that she has to work if there is to be secure shelter above her head at night. We had no choice then but to look for a place away from the urban sprawl of our capital city and consider one of its satellites instead.

We found our little market town almost by accident — or by divine decree, if you will.  We were on our way to view some properties in a large town further north, when all of a sudden I had an urge to veer off down a country lane at the sight of a single signpost. Arriving in the town, we stopped at a newsagents, bought a map and asked the shopkeeper if there was a mosque in the vicinity. He thought there was and suggested some directions. Not only was there a mosque, we were soon to learn, but the Muslim community of the town was on the verge of completing a new, purpose-built place of worship. That was enough for us, I suppose, in our naive state of the time that did not distinguish between types of mosques and types of Muslims.

From then on, we settled for looking for a house here, our driving criteria being that the house we bought would have a garden. And soon enough we found the place. The house wasn’t up to much: it was run down, had no central heating or double-glazing, and was far from the house of my dreams; but its garden somehow won our heart. From this alone I concluded that there must be a reason why the Qur’an uses the imagery of the garden to appeal to man’s natural inclinations.  This garden offered privacy, a place to retreat to, character and a view over fields on the opposite side of the valley. Even in midwinter, in the dampness and darkness, and the chilly cold, it convinced us that this would be our home.

Six years on, with a lot of hard work, the garden has come alive as our little sanctuary from the world. But more than that, slowly-slowly, it has become an extension of our home. In an evolution, reminiscent of Geoff Hamilton’s Ornamental Kitchen Garden that obsessed me in the 1990s when I should have been getting into Bay Watch and the Nintendo PlayStation, it has become a key ingredient in the culinary adventures of the kitchen. We shall never be able to produce crops to sustain us through the year, but in the beds of herbs lies that extra flavour that transforms a tired stew or plain salad into an enjoyable delight. From the garden derive soups, sarma and Black Sea delicacies, not to mention those early morning tealess teas.

For some in our time, paradise on earth is polished white marble, beneath which tubes of cooled water flow, decoratively clad reinforced concrete and towers of polished glass and steel. For others a barren, harsh landscape will best represent their sunnah. But for my part, the garden seems to be well-rooted in this tradition. So excuse me if I don’t apologise for this little obsession of mine.

The fat prince

I confess that for most of the past decade I was convinced that the so-called Smoking Gun video purportedly showing Osama bin Laden describing the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 was a fake. I believed it to be a lazy contrivance thrown together to convince a gullible public of the rightness of a wrong war. I came to refer to it as ‘the video featuring a fat bin Laden’ — for, from the moment I first saw the video broadcast on Channel 4 news one weekday evening, I just knew that the portly figure with that broad, flat nose bore no likeness to the tall, thin Arab we had been accustomed to seeing on our television screens over the preceding weeks.

I am no longer convinced, however. In the past months, and for the first time in almost a decade, I have purchased a television licence (overseas readers may be surprised to learn that the British require a licence to watch live TV, but there we are). The act was brought on not so much for my benefit, but for that of my mother-in-law visiting from Turkey who requires a daily dose of ana haber and melodramatic, violin-backed dramas (British readers may be surprised to learn that we are required to have a licence to watch live TV broadcast anywhere in the world, but can watch the BBC iPlayer to our hearts’ content so long as it’s the catch-up service. But there we are). I will admit that I grew tired of trying to circumvent the TV licence by searching daily for non-live news broadcasts — a snippet here on YouTube, a summary there on the BBC website. In the end, the live broadcast was the way to go.

So now we have a TV. Er, well, no. We have a cheap netbook plugged into a cheap wide-screen monitor. We are not, honestly, all that fussed, although my mother-in-law does puzzle why we don’t just have a normal box with a normal remote like normal people. I would point out that we are not in Turkey, so she wouldn’t receive Turkish terrestrial broadcasts on our normal TV if we were normal people. And before you ask, no I’m not going to erect a massive satellite dish in my back garden for the convenience of having a normal television like normal people. I have an Internet connection, a cheap netbook and a cheap wide-screen monitor, and I find the stuttering and rebuffing altogether quite charming.

So to fat bin Ladens. I probably shouldn’t have watched the Royal Wedding, but I did. We had guests over who brought Union Jacks and declared a special interest; his cousin was (presumably still is) dating the bride’s sister. Hurrah. And of course I wanted to give my mother-in-law a cultural experience to take back home. Royal Weddings, Royal carriages, Royal mini-buses, Union Jacks and Jammy Dodgers were just the thing. So altogether we gathered around our cheap wide-screen monitor, precariously balancing miniature cups of Turkish coffee just within range of the enthusiastic flag waving of two toddlers and a four year old, to await the entrance of Rowen Williams and his guests. And there he came: not the Archbishop, but the fat prince. No, not the groom, but his best man, Prince Harry. He had shoulders like an American Footballer, a short, squat body, and a tiny orange head.

I configured the screen resolution correctly on the monitor when we first got it, but I have long since given up maintaining it. Every time the netbook comes out of the cupboard for a video call to Turkey, something goes awry. So now we just watch squashed TV on that plasticy 23 inch monitor at the netbook’s native resolution. As I said, we’re not fussed. To be honest, I just thought Huw Edwards’ and Gavin Esler’s chubby faces were the result of middle-age spread. It was the arrival of the fat prince that reminded me that our television viewing experience is far from optimal. If only we had a normal box with a normal remote like normal people.

If you had seen Prince Harry that glorious Jummah, you too would certainly have come to believe that the fat bin Laden was in fact Osama bin Laden. It is not inconceivable that the video in question has simply been squashed in transmission. Indeed, when the latest videos were broadcast following the reported death of Osama bin Laden last week, we even witnessed the frame switching from normal proportions to a slightly squashed wide-screen aspect in unedited form (or was it the other way round?).

Which brings me to the other fat prince: Alex Jones. Within days of the latest videos being broadcast, he was declaring that the latest videos were fake. ‘Fake, fake, fake, fake, fake,’ as the person who brought it to my attention put it, when he posted his video. It didn’t even look like Osama bin Laden, he declared, showing us photos of how he looked a decade ago. Possibly true, but then I don’t even look like Timothy Bowes, if you look at the head-shot in my passport from a decade ago. That character with the gaunt, pale face looks like your typical EDL member to me. It’s amazing what a decade of good home-cooked Turkish tucker can do the general flabbiness of a man’s body. Plus I smile a bit more nowadays. Ah no, but it is clearly a cartoon character, a computer animation. Well possibly. I must admit, his mouth did look weird to me, but then you should see Fiona Bruce on a misconfigured wide-screen monitor.

Well it’s all possible, of course. But I have another theory. Could it be that Alex Jones is a figment of his own imagination? The thing that got me thinking about this was, well, his existence. If the United States of America has become — or is fast becoming — a Police State as he perpetually claims, how is it that the Police State Apparatus hasn’t taken him out? Surely he would have fallen down the stairs by now, been run over by a tram or had his website flushed down the loo, speaking as he does of the truth about the evil-doers. But maybe I just don’t understand how the Secret Police work. Ah, but you’ve got me. This isn’t a new thought at all; I first thought this thought a couple of years ago when he uncovered the top-secret goings on of the top-secret and highly secretive Bilderberg Group during their Annual General Meeting. That’s the trouble with Secret Societies these days: we know all about them. Lest we forget Vigil. Codswollop, is what I thought.

I’m sure I probably mentioned before that my grandfather (or was it his grandfather, or my great-grandfather’s son?) was reportedly a member of the Free Masons, but apparently it was just like a social club. I have in mind that they played Dominoes on an evening, but I may be getting mixed up with a Jamaican barber shop. If they were hatching plans for world domination, RISK would have been a better choice of board game. But who knows? Perhaps it’s the Premium Masons we should be worried about.

Alas, alas. I set out this evening to write a serious article about a serious subject, but alas it has descended into farce. But perhaps farce is all that the subject deserves. When Muslims start referring you to Alex Jones as purveyor of the truth, you can only laugh or cry. What great analysis, what penetrating insight. Or not. Personally speaking, I still have great difficulty believing that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were the work of private individuals, but I wouldn’t dare tell you I know what really happened that fateful day. In God we trust. I have no knowledge of the unseen.

Mundane

Life is filled with trials and tests, but somehow we never recognise half of them in the mundane encounters of daily life. ‘Do you think you will be left to say, “We believe”, and will not be tested?’ we remind ourselves as calamities unfold on our television screens. Tornados rip a town to pieces, and we remember. Cruise missiles rain down on a city, and we remember. An earthquake flattens a province, and we remember. But in the disputes between friends, the argument between a husband and his wife, in the pay cut, the job loss, the crashing computer, the rain on a day out, the broken down car, the bill for repairs, the ungrateful response to a favour done, the guest out-staying his welcome and the slugs eating the seedlings in the garden; in all things that demand us to choose between flying into an unholy rage and resigning contentedly to the good in the bad, we forget, repeatedly.We expect the kind of trials we would never be able to bear, wandering on, oblivious to the perpetual assessment that is our life. How easy to decry from afar the deperate residents of a permanent refugee camp picking up the bomb and a gun in rage; how hard to sit down, lie down, repeat one’s wudu, to bite one’s tongue, to go for a walk, to simply say sorry, or never-mind, when dinner wasn’t ready or the tea was cold, when the children raised their voices and scattered toys across the floor, when she had a migraine and forgot your special appointment. How hard it is to face the tests of our lives. How hard. How hard to face the mundane.