Improbable

This time last year, I was found ruminating that it was likely impossible that amidst a population of sixty-seven million citizens my path would ever again cross with those I had once known. Of course, within months, that hypothesis was thoroughly blown out of the water by reality.

But should I really be surprised? A few years ago, my wife expressed her amazement that a former colleague of hers had settled in our sleepy market town. That in itself was not particularly amazing, though, for ours is a commuter town, last stop on the Metropolitan line out west. Many employees with jobs in London settle here, in search of relatively affordable housing.

More amazing, perhaps, was that when my wife invited him and his wife over for tea, we realised that I had known the couple long before she had. Whereas my wife had worked with the chap in the early 2000s, our paths had crossed in the late nineties when I had briefly attended their church in central London.

It turns out, though, that this is not particularly unusual or uncommon. In March I thought of a friend who lives in the Gulf one morning, and ended up having tea with him in London the very same evening. A few weeks ago, I anonymously wrote an ode to an old gentleman I once knew, and hours later his son commented on it. Oh yes, but that’s not the half of it.

Let’s face it: though we may not even know our neighbours ten doors down on the same street, let alone the residents of parallels streets, if the Lord of the universe wishes our paths to cross with another, even on the other side of the planet, it will happen. Even if we tell ourselves that it is impossible that we might bump into an old friend amidst the 8 billion souls that currently reside on planet earth, if we are meant to, we will.

Strange, but true. Much like life itself, which is far more improbable than these crossings of paths. Study the workings of the human cell if you don’t believe me, or the formation of a single amino acid. If your mind has been blown by paths crossed, wait until you’ve deeply pondered your own creation.

Take stock

Eating meat regularly and in large quantities is really a modern phenomenon. If I go to stay in my wife’s village back home, their ordinary diet mostly comprises corn, cabbage and beans. From time to time in winter, if there are guests, someone might bring home a bag of hamsi (anchovy), but meat is a rarity. That was also my experience in rural Tanzania twenty-five years ago, where our daily diet consisted of beans and rice alone.

Our modern predilection for consuming meat for every meal would be considered very strange by the generations that came before us. Traditionally, in many Muslim societies, the only time the common people would eat meat would be once a year around Eid al-Adha, when the wealthy slaughter an animal to distribute amongst the poor. For the poorest families, this remains true to this day.

In contemporary Muslim cultures, however, consuming meat has almost been turned into an obligation, as evidenced by the proliferation of Muslim-owned fried chicken shops and burger bars on every high street. This culture can be troubling for some of those attracted to the faith by its ethical dimensions.

One convert friend has commendably managed to maintain his vegetarianism amongst Muslims for over forty years, but most would struggle to maintain that stance. Certainly, my own insistence on eating less meat after visiting an abattoir only lasted a few months before we drifted back towards its consumption. Early on, we would address that discomfort by purchasing meat only from a smallholder, whom we knew to take animal welfare seriously. Theirs, meat that could truly be considered both halal and tayib.

Then eat of what God has provided for you which is lawful and good. And be grateful for the favour of God, if it is Him that you worship.

Quran 16:114

Unfortunately, through the years since then, we have reverted to form, falling under the intoxicating spell of its taste. I think this is forgetfulness more than anything. It is difficult to remain cognisant of the ethical dimensions of faith at all times, especially if you’re wandering amongst those who don’t consider ethics that important at all.

Perhaps, for that reason, it’s a good idea to spend time amongst the older generation, or spend time in rural backwaters, or simply move amidst vegetarians. Certainly, while socialising with colleagues or visiting family, we find ourselves more than capable of turning vegetarian to avoid consuming haram foods. In a way, I wish that in my early days as a Muslim I had simply told others that I had become vegetarian to avoid all the strife that my faith identity brought.

The consumption of meat has been made permissible for us. But as every learned Muslim knows, conditions apply. The prophetic sunna bears no resemblance to modern industrial meat production, devoid of moderation or compassion. The prophetic way entails dealing with each animal as an individual, treating it well during its lifetime and with kindness at life’s end. And as I write this, I am jolted back to reality once more, recalling how far short we fall of those ideals.

Surely the time has come to take stock of our habits, reminding ourselves once more of the ethical dimensions of our faith, which so easily slip from our minds. These the conversations we must have with each other, whenever we realise that our standards have slipped.

Observations

A surge in childhood diseases, resulting in premature death? Shocked? Not particularly. Some (wholly-unqualified) observations:

First: it’s difficult to get a GP appointment these days. Often, adult patients will first be offered a telephone consultation, some days away. If your symptoms are deemed worrying, you may then be invited to an in-person consultation. Timely access to medical care is vital.

Second: many GP practices have outsourced their telephone triage systems to a single nationwide service provider. This may have resulted in some kind of cost-saving, presumably cutting receptionist salaries on site. However, last week, that service was unavailable nationally due to a server fault, leaving patients unable to contact their local surgery.

Third: the established electronic patient record used by the NHS 111 service has been unavailable since August, after the platform provider was hit by a cyber attack. Contingencies have had to be put in place instead, some more effective than others. If call responders and on-call clinicians cannot easily access medical records, it is a problem for patient care.

Forth: though you wouldn’t know this listening to the government and media’s obsession with the so-called migrant crisis (the increase in numbers very obviously having more to do with refugee crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan, than channel crossings), the health service is in crisis. Many NHS trusts are facing acute staffing shortages. This impacts patient care.

Fifth: lockdowns during the pandemic may have impacted the development of children’s natural immunity, in as much as they were exposed to fewer bugs over a period of two years. But I suspect the jury is out on this one.

Grandpa’s wisdom

My grandmother used to tell me that for the whole of his career, my Methodist grandfather was derided by his colleagues for not drinking, smoking or gambling. His ethos was to live within his means and not squander the wealth he earned.

I am sure he would be shocked if he were alive today learning that the average UK household nowadays spends over £900 on alcohol annually. As a non-drinker for 25 years, for me that equates to a saving of over £20,000 to date.

Similarly, the average smoker spends nearly £5,000 on cigarettes per year, amounting to £125,000 over the same period. Then there’s the lottery, on which the average player spends over £400 annually, amounting to £10,000 over a quarter of a century.

There has certainly been barakah in my grandfather’s wisdom. Having followed a similar pattern in my own life, I strangely find myself in a comfortable situation, despite modest means. Although we are a single-income household, we have managed to live debt-free for some years now.

Quite deliberately, we do not possess credit cards, which might tempt us to buy what we cannot afford. We do not have financing deals to pay for a nice new car, choosing to buy a secondhand vehicle we could afford outright instead. We don’t have the latest smartphones either.

To me, it is shocking that the average personal debt in the UK currently stands at over £25,000. But then I suppose it is not so surprising if we consider what we chose to forgo to achieve a debt-free existence. For sure, I don’t enjoy a standard of living anything like my upbringing, but everything is relative.

I am not under any illusion as to how hard life is for so many, however. In the past, we made the mistake of agreeing to be guarantors for a friend’s tenancy, and ended up having to pay off significant rent arrears on their behalf. Likewise, we’ve had to write off many loans to others when it became apparent they could not repay them. We know life is tough when you have money worries.

For sure, we don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we can at least tie our camel, so to speak. In other words, you do what you can to achieve stability in your life. I can say that though I made a mess of my foundations in my youth, repairs such as these helped me get back on track. With God’s help we have been able to live within our means ourselves. Alhamdulilah for that.

Advantages

Despite the challenges, suggested a friend the other day, there must be advantages of your chromosomal complement. I struggled to think of any.

Some identify increased empathy as a positive impact. But where does that come from? Isn’t that just a psychological effect of a youth spent being sidelined and derided for perceived difference?

Certainly, those experiences have given me a very strong rapport with the underdog, but I don’t know that they can be attributed directly to the condition.

What are some of it’s more direct effects? Shyness? A positive trait from a religious perspective, but one that has also paralysed me throughout my life.

A more sensitive personality, manifesting itself as kindness and helpfulness? Granted, a positive trait in some circumstances.

But beyond these characteristics, in what way could this condition possibly be considered advantageous? It does not cause x-ray vision or the ability to fly. It causes delays, difficulties and deficits. We are normal humans, with certain features disabled by default.

This chromosomal complement is an anomaly. Yes, from a faith perspective, it was bestowed by design. Some of its effects could be said to be positive. But advantage? I remain to be convinced. Perhaps somebody could enlighten me.

Detox

I no longer follow religious social media, except for a singular YouTube subscription. I occasionally catch the drift of what exercises my brethren via a WhatsApp group, but most of these folk are just as cynical as me, likewise given to watching from the sidelines. Occasionally this puts me at a disadvantage, slow to grasp the cause of the flurry of pointed posts, as friends become animated all of a sudden.

Still, I’m mostly satisfied with my voluntary withdrawal from this very modern phenomenon in which we are supposed to find ourselves perpetually on edge. I am content going for a wander once a week with a learned friend to ponder the profound instead. Overall, I think this is better for my sanity. A fast all should try from time to time.

Precision

We often feel legitimately aggrieved by the imprecision of language when others associate the whole with the actions of the few. When newspapers seem to associate all Muslims with the actions an extremist fringe, we rightly decry such inaccuracies, if not as plain deception. We would think then that we would be alert to that imprecision for others too. Ah, but not so.

How often do we hear the phrase “Hindu chauvinism” used across the press, unchallenged? Our own Spidey-Sense shoots into overdrive when serious commentators deploy a similar phrase referencing our religion while discussing the behaviour of ruling political movements, but for the unholy other we stay the course, unthinkingly regurgitating those mantras without pause.

So it is that we speak of Hindu extremism, nationalism and chauvinism without making any attempt to clarify that people identifying as Hindu are as diverse as any other group, crossing the full political spectrum, belonging to different ethnicities and social classes, and holding to different religious worldviews. If we are in fact referring to the actions of adherents to the political ideology, Hindutva, we should be precise.

Hindutva is a right-wing supremacist ideology, inspired by the European political-philosophy which underpinned twentieth-century fascism. It is as much associated with the heterodox traditions of Hinduism as Zionism is with Judaism or Hizb ut-Tahir with Islam. It represents neither majoritarianism nor communalism, only a divisive supremacism, which is at odds with the diverse systems of thought and belief which actually characterise the Indian subcontinent.

To speak of Hindu chauvinism would be the same as speaking of Christian or Muslim chauvinism: it is meaningless, for adherents to our different traditions are disparate. On the political spectrum, we reflect both left and right, libertarianism and authoritarianism. In our personal interactions, some are merciful and kind, while others are brutal and intolerant. In religious practice, some are puritanical literalists, while others embrace inclusive syncretism. Some embrace multiple identities and traditions, while others hold to a narrow fundamentalism.

For some, the term Hindu has no religious connotation whatsoever, but is instead a cultural or geographical marker alone. But that is as much true of others. Many Muslims, Christians and Jews might self-identify with these labels, despite neither believing in nor practising the associated faith. Some of the same would assert that converts are not and cannot truly be associated with that identity from a sociological perspective. In other words, these markers of identity are complex, defying the simplistic explanations beloved of commentators and activists everywhere.

For sure, I have more in common politically with my old friend from university, a third-generation Bharatanatyam artist, than with many of my brethren nominally associated with me by faith. In our uncompromising monotheism, I may be inseparable from another Muslim, but in my views on patriarchy and diversity it might be impossible to be further apart. Amongst the Muslims, we find some who would feel politically at home with Jeremy Corbyn, and yet others who would promote a Muslim equivalent of the BJP.

So precision please. Consider that Quranic maxim as guidance: “And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know it.” Or even: “Do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just.” The alternative may lead us to a very dark place. Don’t alienate your allies by failing to differentiate between friend and foe, nor let others play the game of divide and conquer once more. Be precise, and wise.

Travellers

Where am I from? I am from dust, and will return to dust. And then I will be raised alive when all are raised alive. In that epoch, we will at last know our final destination. Until then, we are all travellers on the road of life. If you are settled, you have missed the point.

People of the boats

Listen to the beautiful poetic music of the maghreb. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you will hear their humanity.

The people of the boats have dreams and aspirations too. They are humans, with hearts, who love and cry like you.

There are no illegal humans. All humans have the right to life and dignity. The earth has been made wide and spacious by the Lord of all creation.

Where are you from?

My wife and I were discussing this question, for it’s been in the news. As an outsider, from elsewhere, she felt such a question is just smalltalk, designed to break the ice, coming after the obligatory comments about the weather and, “Did you watch the match last night?”

But perhaps her response is based upon the different contexts in which we find ourselves: the difference between connecting and otherising. In Turkey, it would be considered perfectly normal for one person to ask another, “Are you Las, Georgian or Hamşen?” each being one of many local ethnicities that might be suggested by accent or dialect. As for me, if I replied that I am English, they would immediately guffaw, “David Beckham!”

I could confirm that such smalltalk is just as common here. At university, “Where are you from?” was a standard icebreaker whenever meeting someone new. In my case, I’d reply, “near York.” New York?! Wow, that’s amazing. “No, no, not New York, near York.” Oh, oh, right, that’s er, not nearly as interesting. At work, too, colleagues will ask exactly the same question because of my subtle northern twang.

But that’s obviously not the context in which this question was asked of the founder of the charity Sistah Space at Buckingham Palace, wherein the line of questions was interpreted more as an interrogation than as friendly conversation. Indeed, it reportedly ended with hostile words in a condescending tone, which made the guest feel very uncomfortable.

Many will relate to that, feeling this line of questioning is less about taking an interest in an individual’s lineage or heritage, and much more about making them feel like an outsider who does not belong. In some ways, I could relate to either position.

In my nearly twenty-five years wandering amongst Muslim communities, I have been asked this question repeatedly. Often those asking are elderly folk, whom I presume to be genuinely curious to work out where I am from, given that I look a little different to the majority of congregations.

If I am out of area, I will first name the town I live in. If they then respond, “No, originally?” I will say that I’m originally from Hull. If they then say, “No, no, originally, originally,” my response will depend on whether I like the person or not. If I feel they’re being an idiot, I’ll simply reply, “Water.” Otherwise, I’ll just describe myself as a restless native, a quarter Irish.

This will satisfy all but the most stubborn of folk. The latter are the type who will go on to persuade me that I’m actually Syrian or Bosnian. You can’t do much about these types. But as for the rest, I think I’d agree with my beloved: yes, it is just friendly small talk, designed to break the ice. For sure, I’d rather this question than some awkward discussion about football.

But I am a white male, whose belonging is never questioned, so this is easy for me to say. My wife, although her skin is more or less the same colour as mine, is occasionally reminded that she is from somewhere else, either as a result of her accent, because she was overheard speaking a different language, or due her dress. But others, more visibly distinct, find themselves reminded of their otherness constantly. For such folk, I can imagine these persistent questions really grate.

So if you must ask, do so carefully. If a person indicates that they think it none of your business, respect that. If, on the other hand, they’re proud of their long lineage, prepare to be bamboozled. Beware, especially, of those who were given a DNA testing kit for Christmas. You may need to grab a chair for the answer to that particular question.

Hypotheses

The past few months have changed everything: my understanding of the major events of my life, in particular.

It all began when my beloved discovered — in her attempt to understand my persistent blues and aching limbs — that I had been neglecting treatment for well over two years. In truth, I’ve been neglecting it for most of the past decade, having the injection I’m supposed to have quarterly very irregularly, with long gaps in between, sometimes six months or a year apart.

They probably weren’t very sound, but I had my reasons for doing so. Mostly that I felt myself in control of my spiritual development without it, the calls of my lower self subdued. But of course there was a clear trade off: that heavy, lethargic melancholy.

Still, I’d been found out. So in February, my beloved had me promising that I’d keep up with interventions from here on. I agreed, having my first injection at the end of the month. I’ve been a good boy since then, following up on every appointment.

In the weeks that followed, two things happened. The first of them, describing myself to a fellow I once knew hoping that he might remember me. In passing, I attributed my appearance to a then-undiagnosed health condition. The second of them, an acquaintance telling me that he had been sure I had the condition the first time he saw me.

Unanticipatedly, these two interactions suddenly had me looking into the condition anew for the first time since diagnosis nearly two decades ago. If you were to review all that I have written throughout this period, you would discover that prior to this year, I only ever mentioned it once.

Indeed, prior to this year, I had only ever spoken of it to my wife and the healthcare professionals I have interacted with through the years. I have never spoken about it to my parents or siblings, nor to my friends, however close. I suppose that was mostly because I had very little information to go on myself. It had been dealt with so passively by my doctors that I had considered it of little significance.

It turns out that was probably not the case, and that the chromosome disorder I have been bestowed with has had an enormous impact on my life. Whereas two decades ago I had a couple of pages of inadequate information to go on, with which to understand its effects, all of a sudden I found myself able to access quality health information and clinical research online.

For the first time, I have begun to make sense of the events of my youth. My delayed speech, my quiet character, my comparative weakness, my struggles at school, my emotional immaturity. The narrative that I was just lazy was so pervasive that I have internalised that explanation my entire life, understanding all subsequent events to have been a consequence of that laziness alone.

Whereas the condition was once addressed nearly exclusively as an endocrine matter, there is a growing body of research into its psychosocial and cognitive impacts. It’s not yet really known whether cognitive delays are a consequence of hormonal deficiencies or that extra chromosome itself, for research is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, it’s now recognised that the condition is often associated with cognitive and language deficits.

The latter I have written about at length through the years. Not in terms of my diagnosis, but in reflecting those inner frustrations about a tongue that rarely submits to me. Friends in the past have picked up on that, asking me whether I think the reason I write so much is due to my inability to articulate my thoughts verbally. Very likely. All of my friends would describe me as the quiet one in gatherings, capable only of interjecting with unfunny witticisms.

Looking back on the past, as I have done at length over the past year, I now doubt nearly everything: my long-held understandings of events, at school, university and in the early years seeking work. Nearly everything I once thought to be the case, I now look at in a new light, mindful of increased understandings of the actual effect of the condition on my life and its impact on others’ perceptions of me.

My increased understanding of the condition throws a whole new light on my relationships with my family, friends and strangers alike. It’s true that my journey of faith had a detrimental impact on my relationship with my family for years, but what of the impact of that extra chromosome and the consequential deficiencies? I would guess that the two are in fact intimately linked, this condition setting off a chain reaction that ultimately I would choose to address with faith.

Today, these are just understandings, hypotheses. But, who knows, perhaps tomorrow they may lead to some kind of recovery or healing. Perhaps they may cause me to seek out professional help to address that lifelong brain fog which afflicts me. Perhaps I will seek interventions to help me overcome the feelings of inadequacy which have stunted career progression. Perhaps I will at last access life-skills training, enabling me to normalise my behaviours and interactions.

Today, theories, inferences, suppositions. Tomorrow: let’s see where these hypotheses may carry me.

Onwards

It doesn’t matter. My beloved always says, “The believer does not grieve over the past, nor worry about the future.”

All that happened happened, as it had to. And indeed there were reasons for all that happened too. That was my road to travel.

So forget about it. Water under the bridge. Moments long gone. Where now will the road carry us? Only time will tell.

Future success

Aspiring people often send their children to private school, in the belief that they’re investing in their future success.

My paternal grandfather was a working class lad, leaving school at sixteen. Upon leaving the army after the war, he worked his way up the social ladder in local business, becoming director of a manufacturing company, which led to him travelling the world to set up subsidiaries overseas.

My grandfather sent his two sons to what is now the town’s main private school. In those days, it was a direct grant school, with many pupils being paid for by the local authority. Many other families of low means were given scholarships and bursaries, with the intention of providing a quality education regardless of social status.

In the 1970s, it became a fully independent school. My eldest brother would start there towards the end of that decade, followed by my middle brother and then myself. My sister, sensibly, went to the grammar school, which by then was also independent.

In our day, the school was not very diverse. In each year group, there were no more than four pupils of an ethnic minority background. Many of my teachers were openly racist, proudly making a show of their prejudice with glee. My year was also the first to see a cohort of female students join in the second year of senior school.

All of my siblings and peers went on to achieve great things in life. In the end, I achieved decent grades academically, but for reasons out of my control never found myself with those high aspirations. My older siblings in turn have sent their own children to private school.

Today, the school I went to has a very diverse student body. The Sudanese doctors I met on hajj in 2006 sent all of their children to the same school I went to. The head girl is now regularly of Indian or Pakistani descent. It appears that diversity is nowadays celebrated, and pupils from deprived socioeconomic backgrounds are once again encouraged to attend.

Many of my friends, who were themselves raised amidst socioeconomic hardship — often the children of immigrants, attending the worst performing schools in the country — have, upon pursuing professional careers of their own, sent their children to private school. Some of them have made great sacrifices to do so.

The results are plain to see, with growing cohorts of successful professionals from once-deprived backgrounds working in medicine, law, engineering and finance. For those with the right aspirations, it only takes a generation or two to climb that social ladder.

But it is not for everyone. I don’t believe attending private school is a necessity. Indeed, many of my peers have shown that this is absolutely not the case. An acquaintance from college, whose father owned an Indian restaurant and attended the local state comprehensive school, has far surpassed me in pursuing a professional career, as have all their siblings.

I suppose, in the end, it all comes down to aspirations. What are you seeking in life? While we ourselves cannot afford to send our children to private school, we nevertheless encourage them to work hard, to achieve their best, and contribute positively to society. In the end, perhaps that is all our children need: positive role models and encouragement.

The years

At the turn of the last decade, twelve years ago, we were united with those two little angels who took over our life. All of a sudden, we were thrown in at the deep-end, learning the art of the nappy-change, feeding and ceaseless care, as those vulnerable infants came to define our lives.

Our house would be filled with visitors then, friends and family, descending to welcome those little ones. An opportunity for the reunification of our wider family. And to witness the love of my grandmother once more, always insistent on making the eight-mile trip to see her great-grandchildren, or us to her.

In the spring of 2011, my mother-in-law made her second visit to England, staying with us for months. That summer, we made our first trip to Turkey with the children, staying with relatives, and visiting the highlands. They remained all the way through until winter, as my wife oversaw the construction of our first little house there.

The winter of 2012 brought heavy snow. The kids played in the garden, building snowmen and sledging down the drive. In the spring, we started building an extension on the back of the house, to afford us more room. The same year, we’d spend spring in our new house in Turkey, and only I would return to complete the remodelling of our place back home.

2012 would also have been the year my team at work was disbanded, forcing me to go-it-alone as a one-man-band. As a cost-saving measure, I was instructed to work from home, to avoid them paying the excess travel fees for the relocation of our office 25 miles south. So I have been a remote worker for a whole decade now.

2013 would be the first summer working from home abroad, with the encouragement of my manager. We remained in our little house the full six weeks, with me working from a laptop with views over the Black Sea. The following summer, my parents would stay with us there as well, absorbing that famous Turkish hospitality.

And so the years ebb and flow, a decade rattling past. Our eldest is fourteen now. We’d forget the years that have passed us by if it wasn’t for the burgeoning photo collection, which daily prompts us to look back on this week through the years.

And now another year begins to draw to a close. All of a sudden, it is December, the months hurtling past as if they were just days. Here I look back on my archives, to recall all I wrote twelve months ago. It’s as if it was just yesterday: but no, in the months since then, most that I wrote has been blown out of the water by reality.

And so the years vanish behind us, locked away and out of reach.

No prison

Frequently, while socialising with friends, conversations turn jokey, about how awful married life is. Analogies of prison are often invoked, causing much hilarity all around.

But I tend to be quite frank with friends at this point. I don’t relate to that vision at all. For me, marriage was and is a huge mercy, for which daily I am in awe.

It’s not that we live in pure bliss. We wind each other up at times. We don’t always see eye-to-eye. Perhaps we each have habits which annoy the other. But on balance, its good far outweighs anything negative.

For sure, after the honeymoon there were lemonmoons, gingermoons, peppermoons, chillimoons. Every period of life brings its trials and tests. As in life in general, there will always be ups and downs.

But for me, given all the burdens I carried before we met, our union was a gift so immense that only sincere gratitude seems a fitting response.

I’m sorry if that makes me a killjoy in moments of jovial play, but really, I could never belittle the generosity of the One who brought two strangers together, bestowing love and affection between us. In this, liberation, not constriction.

Worthless

Social media, as much as traditional media, tells us when it is acceptable to grieve, and which victims are worthy of our sympathies, and which are not.

There will be a profile overlay for victims of some atrocities, but not others. Certainly, there will be no way to stand in solidarity with the victims of white supremacist killing sprees, no matter how much the death toll rises.

Social media reinforces pervasive prejudices daily, but somehow it just washes over us. We don’t even notice anymore how we are coopted by mendacious politics.

We just play along, desperate not to be associated with the latest heinous crime. Never do we notice that only some are asked to play this game of dissociation. Is society at large asked to disassociate itself from the murderous rampages of nationalist extremists? Never!

Instead, we have fully imbibed the hierarchy of human worth, defining some victims more worthy than others. We can’t even see the millions dead elsewhere, their lives cut short by our own nations’ misadventures. We have thoughly been propagandised, through and through.

He answers

I’ve never been very good at making dua, but on those occasions I have sincerely fallen down on my face in prayer — mostly at my most desperate — my supplications have usually been answered in truly astounding ways.

One such prayer came towards the end of my masters studies in Scotland at the turn of the millennium. I was the guest of Turkish friends, who lived four miles away from me, south of the Ochil Hills. I had been invited for breakfast, enjoying the finest hospitality, witnessing their family life up close.

The experience touched me so deeply that on my return to my own residence later that day, recalling the kindness and generosity of my friend’s wife, I made a dua that went something like this: “O Allah, grant me a companion just like that.”

Of course, I forgot all about that prayer over the months that followed, as I graduated, moved away and busied myself looking for work. For a while I stayed with my grandmother not far from where I live now, as a base from which to attend numerous job interviews across the south east.

Eventually I’d secure a temporary job near Maidenhead — not one that required a degree, let alone a postgrad, but it was all I could get — and I would soon move to west London, to take up lodgings close to the Great Western line for the daily commute.

While living there, I became a fixture at West Ealing Mosque, then a humble masjid set up in a converted warehouse, with a wonderful community spirit, to which I’d wander each evening after work. In time, as they grew used to my presence, the folk I met there began inviting me to their homes for tea.

One of them, closer to my parents’ age than mine, invited me one evening for a light meal, doting on me warmly, attending to my every need, while his daughters questioned me inquisitively at length on every aspect of my life. I suppose I must have been quite a curiosity back then, a stranger growing familiar in their midst.

Some months later, it would be another’s turn. He was a young professional, probably a decade older than me. Until that day, I was convinced he was an English Muslim like me — a misconception he corrected only upon completion of my mildly racist diatribe on a bus through Southall. Oops.

This was the chap who together with his wife would introduce me to my beloved soon afterwards. After quizzing me at length about my education and employment status, he quickly broached the question of marriage. By then, I had decided that I’d have to marry a convert, of a similar cultural background to me.

As for the practicalities of that: I hadn’t given it much thought, for as far as I was concerned, this was just banter. In truth, that was my first proper conversation with a chap who until then I had only exchanged salams with for weeks. If we were friends at all, it was only because we both frequented the same kebab shop on the corner of Boston Manor Road in Hanwell.

Regardless, days later he would be inviting me to dinner at his place. There was a convert sister they wanted me to meet, he said. Who was she? Where was she from? Unknown. All I had to go on was that she was “very religious” and had been Muslim about as long as me. To cut a long story short, we were married four months later.

And that would be when it would hit me: that dua I had made almost exactly a year before we were introduced. My beloved’s name was the same as that of the one who had inspired my prayer! As for the family life, that beautiful hospitality, the delicious cuisine, the fine culture: it was all there. The full package.

My tongue had articulated one thing to a friend — and, yes, he came through, for she had embraced the faith at the same time as me, far from home — but my heart was better known to the One, who had heard my plea before that. It was clear proof of words we have all heard.

And when My servants question you concerning Me: surely I am near. I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he calls upon Me. So let them hear My call and let them trust in Me, in order that they may be led aright.

Quran 2:186

Actually, there was so much more to it than I have described here. Most of it must remain a secret, kept between us. An introduction that would be hard to believe without faith. That, I guess, is the power of a sincere prayer, no matter how few and far between.

Call upon the One; most certainly, He will answer.

Census

If you’re worried about the decline of Christianity in England, go to church. Don’t go blaming those who take their faith seriously. If less than half the population identity as Christian, it has nothing to do with practitioners of minority faiths. It just means more people identify with no religion whatsoever. Hardly surprising. If you don’t like it, only you can do anything about it. Only you can make that change.

Forgotten decade

Increasingly, I find that the past decade has become a blur, and I start to forget all that we have done through the years. The blur coincides with two things: raising a family, and finding more stability at work.

Fortunately, I also have two things to counteract it: a blog with which I have accidentally recorded my significant thoughts and feelings through this period, and a large collection of digital photos. Perhaps with the two combined, I might reconstruct this forgotten decade, recalling all that has actually occurred, restoring it to its rightful place high above youthful disquiet.

And so it is that this morning since fajr I have refreshed my memory, remembering each significant event of the past decade, since those two little angels appeared in our lives. The visits from friends and family. Our travels abroad. Our construction projects, here and there. My mother-in-law visiting us here. My parents visiting us there. The children progressing through school. Our migration to Turkey and back. My decade of remote-working. The blossoming of the garden.

It turns out that we have done and achieved much over the past ten years. Perhaps it is only the pandemic which has expunged it from my mind. But even there, we achieved much in those two years too. Perhaps I just need a good rest to recuperate, and reengage with the present once more. My mind feels frazzled. Must repair.

Neurons

This will sound daft to all but myself, but daily I grow evermore worried that I’m residing in a VR simulation, for things keep on happening which are simply… well… implausible. Of course, the answer to that from a faith perspective is that material-only explanations of the world are faulty.

While a biologist might posit that the workings of the body are the result of chemical reactions alone — like those packets of glutamate released into our synapses exciting the neurons on the myriad of spines on the dendritic tree, which one of my learned colleagues theorises motivates us to jump out of bed in the morning — our actual experience of consciousness is even more perplexing.

Honestly, I only have two explanations for all that I keep encountering. Yes, the VR hypothesis, that I’m a participant in an advanced synthetic metaverse, programmed with a set of implausible scenarios. Or the other one, that the world is filled with unseen phenomena which defy explanation. Or, well, a third: just lots and lots of mind-blowing coincidences. Take your pick.

Brain fog

This is the best way I can describe how my head feels much of the time. It has affected me my entire life, which probably explains my inability to advance my career. It feels like a weight right at the front of my forehead, which grasps my train of thought mid-sentence and throws it to oblivion.

A few years ago, my father asked me how long I had been having the short-term memory blackouts that were becoming ever more apparent back then. I told him I couldn’t remember, which made everybody laugh. But the reality is that it has afflicted me for as long as I really can remember.

I pondered on it again just now, because in the space between activating a function in my current project, I completely forgot what I was going to do next. Alas, this is all too common. Unless I have total concentration, and no interruptions, I will frequently lose my train of thought. I suppose that is why I work alone for long periods of time, only to emerge at the specification and hand-over stages.

I probably make myself sound like a total recluse. I’m not. I have grown in confidence as the years have passed by, and generally work well with others. But there is no escaping this fog which descends on me so often, particularly when contemplating new opportunities. I realise I will probably be stuck in this role for life now, unable to move on.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I generally enjoy my job, and we have managed to find a lifestyle which fits into my level of pay. No huge outgoings, a modest home, living within our means. If we weren’t, this predicament would be more burdensome. Alhamdulilah for our barakah.

As for my social life. Well, my intellectual friends have just had to get used to me, as the disengaged one in conversation, unable to articulate sentiments in good time or contribute anything new. Its why I’ve taken to writing at length instead, because only my typing fingers seem to have any fluency at all. As for social gatherings: I avoid them if I can. I can’t do smalltalk, only immature jest.

Such is life with this brain fog which descends daily. It’s like a perpetual numbness that never leaves. Not really a pain, just a weight. Every day is the same.

Pendulum

By now, it should be clear that I constantly oscillate between poles. Mercy, forgiveness, regret, remorse on one side. Bitterness, anger, contempt, self-pity on the other. It’s a battle to remain merciful, as we’re called to. It’s a struggle to remain contrite, holding oneself to account.

Sometimes that bitterness wins, holding sway, causing me to splurge my rancour onto the page. Momentarily, anyway. “You were wronged!” come those inner declarations, remembering the tales of a friend, long afterwards. But in the end, I still don’t know if that was true. And even if it was, decades have passed since then.

So the pendulum swings the other way once more, forcing me to retract my egotistical words, and remember my pledge to forgive and forget, and to think the best of all involved, and to remember them daily in my prayers, to ask for the best for them in all of their affairs. And so this is what I do, hoping for the best for them, for now.

Perhaps we will hold the pendulum for a while now, intent on imagining all of the subsequent imagining to be true. Perhaps one day my heart will settle, my ego tamed, my pride diminished. Perhaps one day, my words will be true: I forgive you. Please forgive me too.

The joke remains

Colleagues still mock mandatory equality and diversity training, indicating that they never listened to what they were being taught in the first place, and why it is so important.

Instead of pondering the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on both health professionals and patients of ethnic minority backgrounds, they retain that piercing smug cynicism, deriding the training as a tick-box nod towards political correctness alone.

Am I surprised? Not really, for this has been my experience ever since I moved to this locality seventeen years ago. Working in primary care, I had to attend an equality and diversity session as part of my induction even then. Coming in from London, and from a diverse milieu, I was gobsmacked when that session just descended into participants not only openly rebelling against attending, but also using overtly racist language and stereotyping.

It was disheartening coming into an organisation like that. Experiences such as these have always made it hard for me to recommend a healthcare job in this locality to those who have previously experienced the profound trauma of discrimination, harassment and bullying at work.

It is sad, that despite witnessing the inequality of outcomes through the pandemic, we continue to routinely deride efforts to tackle discrimination in healthcare provision and employment alike. If only we could have listened first time around, all the way back two decades ago. Nope, but the joke remains.

To settle

Is it a given that Britain will remain home? Away from the anti-immigrant rhetoric beloved of talk-radio and the gutter press, the aspiring know full well that migration has been a characteristic of the human species for as long as we have walked the earth. If people perceive better opportunities elsewhere, they will naturally move.

My maternal grandmother moved to England to work as a nurse in her youth. Now I hear rumours that my niece, studying medicine, is keen on moving to Germany. Since all we brothers married non-brits, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if our children consider the world their oyster.

Friends of ours, of Turkish origin, sold their multiple businesses in Old Blighty a few years ago, upping sticks, to move to Germany and start over. Here, they found themselves encountering too much bureaucracy for too little gain. Over there, they now enjoy a high quality of life.

Graduates of all backgrounds, indigenous or otherwise, will now soon be faced by a similar choice. To remain here in the motherland, or to head abroad to seek new and better opportunities elsewhere. Most of my contemporaries from university already grappled with that question, and many of them have spent their working lives abroad.

People will migrate to wherever they find comfort. Everybody’s aspirations are different. Some pursue riches. Some pursue a simpler life. It will be the same for us and our children: in time, we will just have to follow our hearts.

Designs

Watching Grand Designs and seeing the very expensive cockups, over and over, all I can say is alhamdulilah!

I never understand why people embark on these mammoth projects with money they don’t actually have, landing themselves with gargantuan mortgages and hundreds of thousands if not millions to repay. Not my kind of dream.

We too had a grand design of our own, but ours was within reach, coming to fruition only when the time was right. With patience and without debt, alhamdulilah. Foundations for the future, if the Most Merciful wills.