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.

Lessons from the garden

Often when I get to this point in the year I find myself looking back and reflecting on how quickly the past twelve months have seemed to have passed by. But this year quite the reverse is true: I’m not wondering where all the time went, but pondering how many memories seem to fill the past 300 days. The snow, the passing of a loved one, travels in Arabia, the hard slog in the garden, friends visiting-visiting, the adoption assessments, the family holiday, a month of fasting, visiting friends…  It has been a busy year.

Where the garden is concerned, it appears to be a metaphor for my entire life. Keeping it under control and pulling it into shape requires hard work of the highest order. Whenever I neglect it, it is suddenly sprawling out of control until only another bout of hard slog will suffice. It can be a disheartening affair. In late spring the garden was a picture of beauty—and in some ways my heart was in reasonable shape too—but by the end of summer it was a mess once more, and so too was my soul. It could be that hard work on the land is some kind of treatment for my soul.

Transforming a garden path from this…

to this…

was backbreaking work. But it was worth it. In the solitude of the task, I was found conversing within, carrying me far from the lower calls of my self. And at the end of the day, there was no energy left to sin.

I remember the pride when I conquered the vegetable patch, eradicating every weed in the ground…

but alas, weeding is a constant task and within weeks the weeds were once more dominating the plot, my pride long forgotten, as in my heart.

But perhaps there is reason to be optimistic. We conquered that old, rotting out-house…

though sometimes anger was my fuel, not protein.

And though sometimes it seemed like a mountain too vast to climb…

…in time, with patience and perseverance, and hard work, the unconquerable became but a distant memory…

until at last we achieved our goal.

But more to the point was the realisation that the true beauty of the garden is from Allah.

We don’t make the flowers bloom or call upon the butterflies.

We try our best in life, of course, but true beauty comes from above. With this realisation comes immesaurable ease.

Sunset visitor

Every evening as Maghrib calls, a baby fox appears at our back door, ready to pounce… on a pair of slippers or a football. We have learned not to leave the garden flip-flops out now, for otherwise we will find them abandoned on the lawn in the morning, mildly chewed. So now the fox just stands there watching as we bow in prayer and then scarpers as we fall prostrate.

Anger

Last week I was saying alhamdulilah for words that made me angry, for I thought it was fuel to help me get a job done. I was going to write a post about how anger—when channelled in the right direction—can be something positive, and something useful. Anyway, I didn’t have time in the end, because I was busy channelling my anger towards that stubborn concrete.

It turns out that it wasn’t a very nuanced argument at all. I mean, I’m sure there is truth in this point in general, but it wasn’t a great example. True, I smashed my way through a third of it with an energy I probably could not have mustered in my usual melancholy state.

True indeed, but I also badly damaged my wrist.I know, to you it’s obvious that if the sledgehammer will fracture reinforced concrete, it will do the same to bone if you let it. But you have to understand: this rage was a fuel, and I was writing out the blog post to accompany it in my head as I worked: I had to carry on to prove my point.

Plonker. By the end of the week I couldn’t even carry a bag with that arm, let alone finish the job.

Yes, so I hired a Bosch breaker on Saturday and finished the job in half an hour.

Hmm, nice. I spent every evening after work on that job, and I could have just hired the machine and saved myself the trouble. It’s so funny that I was coming up with this argument about the benefits of anger as I worked. Because now all I can think of is a saying of our blessed Prophet, upon whom be peace.

‘The strong man is not the one who is strong at wrestling, but the one who controls himself in anger.’


Do the flowers bloom in rage?

Sustenance

This year has been a bad year for us in the garden. Autumn was late last year, the leaves not falling from the trees until November and so winter left us late and spring did not even seem to happen. The April showers visited us in May and now we have this scorching sun. Tomorrow the chill may return – Allah knows best. In the garden, the vegetables are not doing well. The slugs and snails have eaten the lettuce already, while the tomatoes, beans and corn just don’t seem to grow, their leaves going yellow and brown instead. There is a reminder in this for us. We thank Allah that we are not people dependent on our own land; we thank Him that the markets are still stocked with fresh vegatables and that we have supermarkets and shops to choose from. Working for a salary, we exchange our coins for dinner. So think of those who live upon their land. Those whose cattle and crops are their wealth. Think of them and be thankful to Allah for his many blessings.

And now think of our folk, our brethren and fellow humans in the Horn of Africa, in the Sahel, in Sudan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Think of those folk who depend on the land and whose crops have failed this year. For me it is not the end that the beans will not flower – we will just visit the market instead – but for others it is a matter of life and death. So be thankful for what you have and remember and pray for those who are without.

From Allah we come and to Him we return. Say alhamdulilah for Allah has showered His blessings upon us, even if we do not comprehend.

Divine Comedy

If ever we needed evidence that we have no control over our own lives, it is in my garden. Last year my wife and I spent a lot of effort working on our vegetable patch, digging it over and working in the manure, all to little avail. It did not get enough light, we concluded, and so this year with advice from my brother and sister we decided to turn it into lawn, seeding it with grass while dispersing the vegetables amidst the flowers in our sunnier beds. The rather wet conditions this summer have been perfect for establishing that lawn. My beloved did most of the work preparing the ground and making it level. A few days before she spread the seed I took it upon myself to move the compost heap, emptying its contents onto that flat ground temporarily as I relocated the bin. This may have something to do with what happened next. My wife scattered the seeds during the sunny spell we had a few weeks ago and with daily watering the grass began to sprout. And then came the rain. Over the past week the grass has really started to grow quickly and strongly, and almost the whole patch is now green. But a trip down the garden two days ago revealed a very funny sight. All over that fertile ground, amidst the shoots of grass, are a hundred little tomato plants, lettuces, cucumbers, even melons. Seeds from the rotted fruit and veg in the compost heap? Last year’s seeds revived? A scattering blown by the wind? God knows best. But an autonomous vegetable patch in our lawn – yes. However we look at it, our lives remain in our Creator’s hands. We may convince ourselves that we have everything under control, but the truth is quite distinct. Oh for the parables of our lives.

Spring is here

What beauty! It has been a long winter this year, but spring is finally here. My front garden is suddenly blooming; flushes of new green leaves and splashes of colour everywhere. There are pinkish red flowers on the camelia, purble tulips, bright yellow cowslips, orange on our exotic oak, yellows, pinks, blues of primulars everywhere. The scent is splendid. It is a sight that makes me mutter Alhamdulilah over and over again. Here is our front garden from upstairs this evening:

And another view from the front door:

And a final view out the back:

Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah.

Fond memories

I am, as they say, ker-nackered. I have spent the afternoon in the garden, trying to prepare my wife’s vegetable patch. We are on very heavy clay soil and the clumps are like rocks. After spending a couple of hours trying to break the chunks of mud into smaller pieces, I started digging in 300 litres of organic matter. The job is not yet done, but I cannot go on. I can feel the blood pulsating through my veins and I ache all over. I am not complaining however: it brought back happy memories.

When we lived in London, we used to share an allotment with dear neighbours of ours. They lived a good fifteen minutes’ walk from us, but we were always dropping in for green tea and conversation. Unfortunately (for me) they emigrated on to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates a couple of years ago. My friend was from Peshawar but had come to England maybe two decades before; his grandfather was an English convert to Islam from the days of the Raj and so he had some connections with old blighty already. He was married to a Polish convert to Islam – the lady who produced the Polish translation of “Jesus Prophet of Islam”, for which I designed the cover. So for two or three years we shared an allotment about five minutes walk from his flat.

This afternoon, tiring myself in my wife’s vegetable patch, I recalled those days fondly. I remembered the days when we first got the plot. It was a massive piece of land – around 30m by 8m – and it was covered in weeds when we took it over. I remember the day when we got the key – the only tools we had were a screwdriver and a hammer, and so he and I were seen on our hands and knees trying to work the roots of thistles out of the ground with our primitive implements. Later on, we created a knot-garden at the front of the plot – a round bed of roses in the centre, with four other segments on the other sides of the path. We had a rose and a buddleia climbing over an arch at the front. That first year we had a constant supply of giant marrows all summer long and fresh tomatoes too. We also had a great crop of potatoes, which we had not planted.

My fondest memory, however, is of the chain gang. We had all that land, the soil rock hard and covered in thistles. We wondered how we would ever make any progress. My friend told me to leave it with him; I remember the sight – and the look on the faces of all the other allotment holders – when I arrived one Saturday afternoon. My friend and what seemed like fifteen Afghani men – dressed in sandals and salwar kameeze – were standing in a row, digging a trench with pickaxes and spades. By the end of the afternoon they had overturned an area 8m by 8m of weed-filled soil. I remembered that sight today – it made me chuckle. We did make progress in the end. We had a field of corn beneath which grew cucumbers. We had potatoes, carrots, parsnips and strawberries. But most of all, we had great friendship down there.

I miss my friend, but he is always there whenever I am working in my new garden. The last I heard he was making one of his own in Sharjah: date palms in the sand.

Adventures from the kitchen

So I keep going on about writing – writing, writing, writing – but there is actually another past-time fast taking over. All of my hobbies are time consuming. It isn’t that I enjoy hard work, indeed I am probably one of the laziest people you could ever meet, but I love to see the finished product. So I keep on at the writing and the typesetting, though it bores me sometimes, because I want to see the end result. And I suppose the same is true of this new pursuit of mine.

For the first few years of my marriage I was banned from the kitchen after an unfortunate incident with a cake I had decided to bake for my wife. She had also heard rumours of the birthday cake I had made for my mother as a teenager, which my sister had kindly named the Stumer Cake. My reputation went before me it seemed. I was never satisfied with the exclusions of the no-fry zone under this regime, so one day I decided I would secretly flout the injunction. There was a celebration for two colleagues at my last place of work, so I decided it would be nice if I took with me a cake. And so my little adventure began, the result of which was a marble sponge, half ginger, half cocoa. The next day at work it all went rather splendidly – it literally went down very well indeed. Interestingly, one of my colleagues sneaked a piece to my wife for we used to work in the same office – and my destiny was changed forever.

I don’t know how many times my wife has asked me to bake a cake now. There was the one she requested when her friends were coming around, one for a visit by my siblings, one for my father and one more for my parents on our recent visit up north. I am now the official baker of Chateau Bowes. But cakes are not all I do. I’m onto pies now. Cheese and onion quiche. Apple, sultana and cinnamon pie. We took an apple pie to my grandmother. And the tour-de-force: lemon meringue pie.

Although there is a rather unfortunate tale accompanying the last.

We have at work a certain member of staff who is always on hand to help absolutely everyone out. She is underpaid and overworked. I can only say she is not of my generation – it is all I dare to say. Everyday I ask her how she is when I go to change the back-up tapes on the server. There was a week when she kept saying, “I’m fine, but I’d be much better if someone brought be a chocolate cake or a lemon meringue pie.” So I went home that weekend thinking that I would bake her pie. If anyone deserved a pie it was her, and so on Sunday evening I set about the task. It took me hours – the pastry base, then the fresh lemon filling and finally the meringue – but I enjoyed it all the same. Monday morning I delivered the pie. Well, who would have known it? I was certainly the flavour of the month. The whole of the executive team were busy tucking in.

Unfortunately word got out. My wife has a friend who works in my organisation and she had stories to report. Suffice to say, another embargo has been put into force. I am prohibited to take any more baking with me to the office. So a day or two later, there I was eating a slice of my homemade apple pie at my desk in the office when in walked our friend from the front desk. She asked where her piece was. I had to explain. “But didn’t you explain that we’re all happily married ladies?” she asked.

“Don’t worry,” I replied, saying the first thing that came to my mind, “I told her you were all golden oldies.”

I am sorry to report that I was no longer the flavour of the month. In under twenty-four hours my personal rating had shot through the roof and then back down through the floor. Oh, for my culinary adventures!

More bounty

Here comes the rain – Alhamdulilah. The sky is beige and its falling in sheets. Good for the garden I am sure. Still, my wife has rushed into the garden to defend her vege against the snail/slug onslaught – last seen heading for the garden with a bag of porridge. Don’t ask. Anyway, alhamulilah for rain!

Fire

While preparing our vegetable patch this weekend, burning the last remnants of our pruning, it occurred to me that the average Englishman hardly has any relationship with fire in this age. If we are cold, we flip a switch and do the same when it gets dark; the closest we get are the blue jets of heat on the gas cooker. Whereas my wife’s mother will stoke the flames in her wood burning stove to cook some fresh corn bread several times a week, whereas desert nomads would gather around open roaring flames comforting them in the deep cold night, we are a people of switches. So I started to wonder: are we in danger of losing the imagery of centuries? What effect does the loss of contact with one of the most potent influences on humanity have on our language? Standing there, watching the tall orange flames, the heat reaching my face though I stood more than a metre away, these random thoughts came to mind. In the evening, when I returned from the market, I arranged a pile of bricks both side of the now white ash and placed a grill on top. Dinner was delicious that night and I felt some sort of appreciation for the imagery of old.

Into the garden

We have this plant in our front garden. It has flowers somewhat like those of the Fusia, but glossy leaves and woody stems like a gooseberry bush. Does anyone know what it is?


At the bottom of our back garden we have another unusual plant. It seems to have two sets of flowers. First come the bunches of tiny bell-like white flowers, but they are followed by large red flourishes. What is this plant?

In the front garden around the pond we have some really lush vegetation. This is a good old English cowslip:

And finally, the Camelia bush in full flower at the top of the path in front of our house.


The beauty of Allah’s grand creation never ceases to delight me.