Burnt retinas and RSI

In 1996 I wrote a novel entitled The Beauty of the Lion. From a literary point of view, it was a disaster, but for me as the writer it was remarkably influential.

There was nothing remarkable about the book itself, except for its particularly sloppy style and poor punctuation. Indeed, I suppose the same story has been recounted a million times before, only with mildly different characters. This was no ground-breaking tale or spectacular innovation; it was, perhaps, just another tired-out rewriting of a quite ordinary life.

Yet as I occupied the lives of those characters for a few short months — mainly in the darkened hours — as I hammered the story into the keyboard and burnt my retinas with the word processor’s midnight glow, a whole new world opened up before me. It is quite true to say that this project started my writing habit, having avoided any kind of hard work throughout my schooling, but this is not what I have in mind. Rather, though completely unintended, my investment in those semi-imagined lives carried me along a path towards an unexpected destination.

The story accompanied two quite unlikely companions: a young Sikh woman from an irreligious family attempting to rediscover her faith and a young white man running away from his. But the story was not about religion, for these faiths were purely markers of identity. For the jumble of atheist, Sikh, Christian and Muslim characters race was the defining identity that caused tensions between them.

So a tale began of how two insecure characters could have become friends were it not for the intervention of their other acquaintances: the Pakistani Muslim girls who befriended the Sikh at school and warned her of the white boy’s crimes, and the boy’s Muslim friends who derided the girl for her odd ways. The Muslim characters were one dimensional, with few redeeming qualities. The girls were judgemental and racist, while the boys befell one misfortune after another.

Naturally, as these tales almost always go, eventually the two saw through the machinations of their advisers and decided to become friends. And so of course the Sikh girl’s brother threatened to break the white boy’s back, and her friends turned their backs on her, and a friendship was exaggerated into something akin to fornication, and though they denied that it was anything more, the girl finally faced the consequences of insinuation and was thrown out of the house and sent away.

And yet that was just the beginning. Fifteen chapters and a hundred thousand words later, a period of fifteen years having passed by in its pages, the novel ended on her son’s first day of school. Her job now ‘was to see that Benjamin-Piara, and Laila, would succeed the way she did, but without the heartbreak and the struggle.’  Apart from the terribly poor writing, it was quite a grim novel — the encounters with racists and criminals were hardly light entertainment — but it had a happy ending, of sorts.

For me, however, that was not the end of it. About four months after completing the project I moved down to London to begin a university degree. A few of my fellow students read copies of my novel, but they were all far too polite to offer any constructive criticism. It did not matter, for I had already come to terms with its flaws. Finding myself in a hugely cosmopolitan environment, interacting with people from all sorts of backgrounds, I was suddenly conscious of the one dimensional nature of the characters in the book and the great complexities of real people. Gradually I was becoming sympathetic to some of the antagonists in my novel and more critical of the two main characters.

As the year wore on and I honed my writing skills penning essays on environmental degradation and theories of economic development, I knew that I had to rewrite that novel. At first I just wanted to improve the quality of the writing, which I knew was poor and immature, but as I committed to revisiting the story it began taking on a life of its own.

The Sikh girl’s friends were not as bad as I had thought. One was just principled in her beliefs. She had her faults like anyone, but her objections to the boy came not from malice, but out of genuine concern for her friend. The Sikh girl was not as certain about beliefs as I had thought: she was just putting out feelers, stumbling to find her way in an environment devoid of guidance. The boy was no pure victim of the vindictiveness of others: he had played an active role in messing up his life.

By the time I returned to my word processor at the start of the summer break and began the novel anew, it was already a different book. Where it had once been clearly about race, now it was threaded with ambivalent questions of faith. Where there was once a certainty about the rightness of some characters and wrongness of others, there was now uncertainty in everyone. The girl that was the thorn in the side of the main players in the first draft had somehow won my respect.

In the process of writing a piece of fiction, it was as if the writer had moved a thousand miles. My summer break proved too short and by my return to university to begin my second year of studies I had only completed half of the rewrite, and that was as far as I ever got. My writing had carried me — though not alone, for there were other influences too — towards another world.  Before the following summer I would be a treading a new path myself. Not as a well defined, one dimensional creature, but a complicated, ambivalent character that a far greater Creator had willed into existence.

I shall forever be grateful for the pen, for bringing me this far from home. And to the publisher who recognised that the manuscript was best consigned to the bin.

Tanzania 1996 – part 2

On Tuesday 9 July 1996, we flew from Dodoma at about 7.30 in the morning to Musoma, with a stop at Arusha to pick two other passengers up. Taking off from Arusha the surrounding landscape was filled with lush vegetation, including Banana Palms. Houses were round with cone-shaped thatched roofs, grouped in twos and threes amongst fields. Soon, a wider, scarcely populated and dry looking plain came within view. From our height, vast folds and ridges were clearly visible down below. We passed over what I presumed were volcanic craters and then past a huge volcanic mountain. The Serenghetti was invisible to us as we passed through heavy clouds above it, but closer to Musoma we could see Lake Victoria. Its vastness was even greater than I had imagined, as we swung around over a small section of it, ready to land at the airport.

Another of my uncles met us at the airport and drove us to his home. Later in the day, he took us to the diocese headquarters, where he worked, and met the Bishop of Mara, whose home we then visited for coffee in the evening. The Bishop’s home was very close to the shores of Lake Victoria and his family kept a cow and chickens out back. He seemed like a very good man, well suited to his role.

On Wednesday we went on Lake Victoria in a motor propelled fishing boat. Out there we saw such a diverse range of wildlife on the islands we encountered. Up on a tree-top we saw a pair of Fish Eagles with white heads and black bodies. Later we watched a Monitor Lizard sunning itself on a large rock by the water for a short time, before it disappeared off into some undergrowth. We saw hundreds of birds that looked like cormorants and we even watched a couple of shy monkies drinking at the lake side where the forest ended abruptly. Some of these islands were nothing more than huge boulders rising out of the lake, while others had a scattering of plant life, ranging from several varieties of grasses through to tall palms. Some islands still were almost entirely forested. In some places, fishermen had set up camp under rocks; in others, people were doing their washing by the lakeside.

On our return we went to visit the building site of my Uncle Les and Aunt Lyn’s new home, overlooking the lake. That evening we walked down the road to a hotel a few miles away for supper. We set off at six thirty, arrived at seven, but did not eat for over an hour and returned home just before ten. The culture shock experienced as we went inside felt unreal. In the heart of this modest neighbourhood was a marble floored hotel, with tinted glass windows, stainless steel chairs, Victorian style curtains and decorative wood carvings. After a delicious meal, they arranged transport to take us home. It had seemed like a strange development at first, but perhaps I had got too used to beans and rice, and baki soup. Perhaps I had just got used to concrete floors and fly-screen windows.

On Friday we spent the morning at a nursing home for babies, almost next door to the house that was being built for Lyn and Les. At any one time the home was looking after 30 children who had lost their mothers. Often the father would bring the child when his/her mother died in childbirth. The visit left me feeling sad one level, but at least the children seemed to be in good hands now. The buildings were very new and had good facilities, but there was concern that interest from those who were financially supporting the home would fade in time, as had happened in other places.

In the afternoon there was a celebration for my cousin’s first birthday and he was clearly happy to have even more attention than usual, with a few of his siblings’ young Tanzanian friends joining them for the party. Jelly and ice-cream seemed to be a strange concept for Tanzanian children, although they had no difficulty in gulping down glassed of Coca Cola, the international drink.

After a week in Musoma, we left at half past eleven on Saturday morning in the little MAF plane. The flight was quite turbulent due to the rising head of the midday air. Passing across the clear sky, we looked down on the Serenghetti with its scattered human settlements and over Lake Eyasi. After an uncomfortable landing back at Dodoma, we had lunch with a MAF employee before travelling on to Kongwa. It was good to return once more and I was glad to see ‘my bed’ again. Sunday, however, was my last full day there. I needed to have a good talk with my aunt and uncle who had accommodated me all those weeks, for they had noticed by anger and I had to assure them that I was not angry with them. I was not a happy fellow in general in those days for I seemed to slip easily into depression, but this anger was different somehow. I had all of this anger directed at the world, both from my experience here and as a result of listening to the news. The IRA had bombed a shopping centre in Manchester during my stay, a Tamil Tiger had blown herself up in Sri Lanka, news arrived of continuing sectarian abuse in Bosnia and these people reminded of the massacres in Rwanda only a few years before. I was angry too about being here now as a tourist. It was true that all of us had experienced much more of Tanzania than the average tourist would have since we were travelling far from the tourist trails. This was not four days on Safari in a National Park and three days at the beach, and so it was not fair that my anger seemed to fall on my family. But that anger remained because I just could not balance the conflicting sides of life.

Yet, although my anger was undoubtedly unpleasant for those around me, I felt soon afterwards that these were important emotions to experience. It was a learning process for me. Phyll advised me that we have to find a way of living at a comfortable level, knowing that there will always be conflicts between the two worlds: we have to live in a way that ensures that we stay healthy, she said, and in a way that makes us believe that life is worth living. She told me that some mission partners came out and tried to live along side the people as far as possible, but then their children would become ill and they would never return. She believed that a balance could be found, wherein it was possible to live in a way that the individual felt comfortable with. Being able to contribute in a positive way towards the community was perhaps better than trying to live just like the community, she felt. For my part, I felt that I would not accept this cultural divide as part of life at that point, believing that I needed the anger to keep my concern alive.

When I finally rested my head on my pillow that night, I could hear people singing, clapping and whooping their voices in the village. It sounded like a happy night for some people and although I did not know the real reason I pretended that they were wishing me a happy last night in this place. I praise the my undefined Lord for giving them such beautiful voices.

On Monday morning we left Kongwa at just after ten, travelling east towards Morgoro. We stopped to eat our packed lunch at the memorial site of Primeminister Sokonie, who died in mysterious circumstances in 1984, on this same stretch of road. When his car crashed on that straight stretch of road he had been investigating corruption in the government, and so rumours were rife. As a member of the Masai tribe, Masai people have started settling in the area ever since his death. As we sat there munching on our sandwiches, a Masai man appeared and stood still watching us. Shortly afterwards, more young, very tall Masai men joined him, one of them holding a black plastic radio close to her ear. Dressed in traditional black robes, they asked the other man where we were from and he replied ‘Uingereza.’ It was an African Safari in reverse.

We continued on towards the Mikumi National Park through Morogoro. When we first entered the park we saw the charred forest on either side of the road where there had recently been a bush fire and there were still clouds of black smoke rising over a hill in the distance. As we drove onwards, we encountered wild animals close to the roadside: deer, elephants, warthogs, zebras, giraffes and a lone gnu. Taking a path away from the main road at half-past four, we watched hippos bathing in a water-hole, giraffes in the bush and some huge birds called Ground Hornbills. In the evening we stayed at the Mikumi Health Centre, its guest wing established to recover costs for the Health Project.

On Tuesday 16 July, we arose before dawn and went out in John’s Land Rover into the heart of the magnificent landscape. As the sun began to rise in the east from behind the hills, a low mists hugging the ground, we saw zebras, giraffes, elephants, tommies, gnus and buffalo in great numbers. It was a really special time. We remained out there for three hours and then returned again after breakfast to see baboons playing on the plain near a lone gnu and others in a group under a tree.

Driving in a more forested area, amongst long grasses, the most numerous animal population we encountered however was that of the Tetsi fly, as they swarmed on the car and annoyed us when they got inside. The forested valleys were impressive, although we did not see any animals as we passed through them. Still, for the remainder of the day we saw many strange birds including a breed of eagle, some type of pelican and a colourful little bird called a Lilac-breasted Roller.

Late in the afternoon we drove into Morogoro for an overnight stop, staying at the Masuka Village Hotel. I was glad of a shower that I did not have to prime with a hand pump or improvise with a plastic jug. I just turned on the tap and let the water flow over me: what a luxury. I went to sleep that night to a less than tuneful frog chorus. The following morning we left Morogoro early and started on our way to Darussalam. The coastal city was as busy as ever and just as hot.

Arriving at the White Sands Beach Hotel, located beside the ocean, I was feeling uneasy again. The immense luxury contrasted once more with my experience up until then. On the one hand I knew that I should have been encouraged that the hotel was Tanzanian owned and thus our stay fed into the economy, but on the other I had those images from the villages in my mind. I knew that tourism was a resource that could be exploited for the benefit of the country, but still I felt uncomfortable. My cynicism back then was probably misplaced, for Tanzania had a target to receive 50,000 tourists each year by 1998, earning the economy 500 million US dollars every year.

During our stay, the hotel was hosting practices for ‘Miss Tanzania 1996’ and a conference on eradicating poverty. The staff were all very friendly. I would say shikamoo and they would reply. I had to apologise that my Swahili was not very good of course when they tried to engage me in conversation. And so they would chat in English instead. Those were happy memories for me. When I greeted them in their language they seemed to treat me quite affectionately. The Indian Ocean was warm and the wind was far from cold.

My seven weeks in that beautiful land came to an end on 19 July 1996. The Zairean band Wenge Musica BCBG was staying at the hotel that day in preparation for their tour of Tanzania. These band members all looked very cool, very rich and had the characteristics of any Western R & B group, with their close shave hairstyles and designer sunglasses. The restaurant was filled with businessmen at lunchtime; I could not help noticing that almost without exception Tanzanian businessmen were well built, not at all like the slim men in Kongwa. On that last day, I was walking around as if the world was about to end. Tanzania had felt very homely, as I had grown used to life there. I knew I was going to miss the country, despite those angry moments. Shikamoo was a blessing for me: it served that role that salam alaikum fulfils today.

At the door I greeted the doorman and then said goodbye. We drove out to the airport and checked in for our flight. My time in that beautiful yet so struggling country was over.

Tanzania 1996 – part 1

My journey to Tanzania on 1 June 1996 was the first time I had travelled abroad alone and I was apprehensive about the journey. When my plane touched down in Darussalam on a very warm winter’s evening there was some sense of relief, although I suffered from nerves which made my passage through customs uncomfortable. Sweating in the unexpected heat, I was greeted affectionately in the airport lobby by my Uncle John and Aunt Phyll who were happy to see me at last. That night we slept in the Catholic Secretariat beneath mosquito nets, the song of insects outside cheering my arrival.

Darussalam was bustling on Sunday morning, a scene far removed from the sleepy Sabbath days of suburban England. Warm conversation greeted our arrival in town, a Tanzanian at the telephone kiosk asking if we were German until he realised that he could engage Phyll with Swahili chit-chat. After a phone call home, we were soon on the road again, heading out of the coastal town in John’s white Land Rover. All along the edge of the potholed tarmac road, salesmen could be seen selling every conceivable ware: bananas, bricks, Coca Cola, clothes. Into the countryside, their numbers lessened, the stalls replaced by fields, homes and forest. Out here the vegetation was lush and green, revealing banana palms, coconut palms and even rice on the low river fed fields.

We stopped for lunch in Morogoro, 2000 feet above sea level, at the New Green Restaurant. Though there was a short rain shower during our stopover, the vegetation was not as fresh here as it had been towards the coast. The journey onwards was long, for we were heading far into the interior where the land was dry, the earth dusty and the plants pale in colour, but the smooth road afforded us some comfort. To our left and right, graceful mountains rose out of the plain, each one veiled beneath a layer of trees. Forty kilometres from our destination, we finally cut off the good road and took to a dirt track across Kongwa Ranch, passing through Kongwa town and then the village between it and St Philip’s Theological College. After a full day travelling, we arrived at our destination at six in the evening.

The Iona community (in whose company I lost my faith years earlier) out in the Hebrides Sea thousands of miles from here was famous for its African choruses: I used to love those atmospheric gatherings in the Abbey. Yet those Celtic renderings of Swahili verse paled now, as the native voices rose into the heavens from the evening service in the white-walled chapel. Those songs were my welcome to this college in the heart of Tanzania. I loved John and Phyll’s flat at the head of the road: its views were spectacular, while its architectural style appealed to me. I slept well that first night on the campus.

The following day was a national holiday in honour of the five hundred people who died in the MV Bukoba ferry disaster on 20 May. So many young students had died that day when the boat sank on Lake Victoria as they travelled homewards following the public examinations. All around there was a sense of mourning. It was a sad day, but at the time I considered it a blessing in a way: it gave me pause to reflect on our own approach to death. This was before the death of the Princess of Wales and that very public outpouring of grief, real or imagined. It seemed to me that death was not a taboo as it often seemed to be within our own culture: a taboo which seemed to leave behind so much pain as the consequences of loss and sorrow were hidden away. I wondered whether the source of this was a greater appreciation of life and death. In the afternoon a service was held in memory of the mother of one of the college workers, who had just died after suffering from Tuberculosis. In England in our era, we do not know of TB, polio or pandemic flu and the survival rate of children is good: and so death is perceived differently I believed. As the departed soul was remembered in the chapel, beautiful African hymns were drifting through the air once more.

I was getting used to life in that at first unfamiliar landscape, although it was not a life I had ever experienced before. Following the red soil paths around the college, I came across giant Baobab trees and Philippine Leucaena for the first time in my life. Wandering further, there was the national grid transformer, but it was not yet connected, so the private diesel-generated electricity came on at half-past six in the evening and went off three hours later. It quickly struck me how much we take for granted in our resource-on-demand culture. By my third day in that foreign land I was already feeling humbled.

Despite my own shyness, everyone I met seemed to be extremely friendly and kind. A young man called Yohana brought me his school exercise book one evening in an effort to help me grasp his Swahili tongue. Everyone I met on a personal level was welcoming and yet that paranoid discomfort remained. Travelling up to the capital, I interpreted faces and eyes in my own way, worrying about those glances from strangers. Dodoma was hot and dusty, its climate distinct from coastal Darussalam, just like Ankara compared to Istanbul. John was visiting the bishops at the Cathedral and so I spent the day wandering around the town with Phyll. In that suffocating heat, a chilled bottle of ginger beer was most welcome, but it did not set my mind at ease. I was a self-conscious visitor to that magnificent country in 1996. I was anxious about the European Colonial past and about how I would be perceived in that now independent land. What was I to make of the glances of the people I passed by? These were amongst my thoughts throughout my stay as a white-faced guest in a proud African state.

Friday 7 June was the last day of the semester and it ended with a service of Communion in the chapel. Stuttering with broken Swahili I found myself standing before the happy congregation with words of introduction. ‘Habari,’ I asked, what news?

‘Nzuri,’ came the chorused reply – good.

I went on to tell them with rehearsed lines that my name was Timotheo, I was from England and the nephew of the Principal. My pronunciation was clearly hilarious for there was laughter all about me as I went on. Still, the chapel filled with applause when I ended. With the arrival of the holidays, the students were clearly overjoyed, for they left the chapel in enthusiastic song, their swaying close to dancing. Left behind, it was a kind of boost for me: my shy insecurity had given way to a moment’s confidence and I felt a sense of self-satisfaction. Two days later I would repeat my wee speech in front of another congregation in a half-complete church in the village.

The following day I studied Swahili without break and finally came across some advice in my textbook which I wished I had encountered earlier:

In Tanzanian culture there are conventions about who is the first to speak. It is usually the person of lower status who greets the other person. A stranger entering a village should greet the villagers who will then welcome him. These are conventions that should be noted, for the visitor will feel unwanted because nobody speaks and everyone looks unwelcoming, likewise the villagers may misinterpret it and feel offended because he is wandering around in their territory without even having the decency to make himself known to them. It is important in Swahili culture to greet people properly. A smile or a mumbled word is not sufficient and it is considered rude to ignore people.

I had a lot to learn. Indeed, when I was caught making biscuits in the kitchen in the middle of the week it provoked a number of questions. This was woman’s work I quickly learned and, while my eccentricities might be tolerated here, I was told that I would be chased out of town in Musoma, where a man who enters the kitchen is considered the lowest of the low. Still, my detractors enjoyed the ginger cookies anyway when they settled on the cooling rack.

It seemed like I would never get used to being a member of an ethnic minority. Saturday 15 June was no exception. Receiving visitors from England, John had agreed to take them up to Mpwapwa in the college Toyota, which although just over the hills behind us, could only be reached via miles of potholed dirt roads around the range of hills. The distance was shorter than that between Kongwa and Dodoma, but the journey took twice as long. Fatigued by that rough drive, I felt miserable again once we arrived. As a stranger pulled on Phyll’s bag, some men sitting nearby laughing at the sight, a crowd of men at one end of the central building called out as we walked past. A little while later, the man who had grabbed Phyll’s bag returned and began shouting at us. We wazungu (Europeans) seemed to be unwelcome there and I was happy to return to the suffocating enclosure of our car. The experience left me feeling depressed, demeaned, rejected and threatened, and possibly for the first time in my life I discovered what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism, if only for an hour or so. On our way into town, it had seemed so pleasant – people smiled and waved and so I waved back – but as we went further through Mpwapwa and up towards the new Cathedral that was being built, my mind was on our return. The Cathedral looked impressive, with spectacular views over the plain, but I did not appreciate it after our passage through the market. My mindless depression dominated the magnificent view.

Yet for every encounter with strangers and my perception of it, my meeting with individuals seemed to throw doubt on my previous conclusions. Tuesday 18 June was a day of conversation, which in those days came as quite a shock given my frequent reversion to silence. From next door came the Rwandan sisters, intent on bringing more Swahili through my lips. I suppose my lack of words was quite an aberration in this land. After lunch I ventured down the road to the student accommodation closer to the chapel, where I met three trainee priests: Amon, Suleman and Mote. Mote Mgombe had excellent English and thus acted as an interpreter between Suleman and myself: Suleman explained that they had been expecting me to visit and that not visiting would usually be interpreted as a sign of hostility. Taking his obvious upset to heart, I found myself visiting almost every day after that. Although we were talking together in a mixture of Swahili and English, it did not stop us delving into unfamiliar territory, with Amon leading us into realms I had always considered taboo.

Amon was pale and not in particularly high spirits since he had just been circumcised. Although circumcision was not the norm in his tribe – and his operation was motivated by the love of a woman – the other students were bemused by my culture’s attitude towards it. At the time I was equally bemused by theirs. They told me that the government had recently passed a law to prevent female circumcision, which various tribes had previously justified on the grounds of tradition, religion and superstition. Some people, they told me, even suggested that it was necessary to suppress desires that lead women into prostitution: given my own cultural background this concept did not sit well with me and I ended up asking questions about equality and gender dominance, which did not find an answer immediately.

When our neighbours arrived, Amon and Edita began speaking in a language that did not sound like Swahili and turned out to be one of the 126 tribal tongues of the country. Against this backdrop, Mote was very keen on explaining why the existence of a unifying national language was so important. Even within each of the 126 different tribes, the individual languages were subdivided into multiple dialects, making natural conversation between different groups awkward.

After some time, Mote and I left Amon with the girls, wandering off to his room to continue our conversation there. He struck me as a very open minded and well read individual. Now that we had one another’s full attention, he wanted to take me up on the questions I had been asking earlier. He had no problem with the question I had asked, he told me, but the way I had asked it posed a problem. Tanzanian tribes were not unique, he said, in having defined traditional roles for men and women, but my worldview prevented me from accepting this. While Mote was able to approach the question from different angles, I found myself locked upon the only path I knew, adamant that these values transcended all boundaries of nation, race and class. So Mote talked about how women rose at five in the morning and worked through until ten at night, just to keep the home under control, but he neither praised this nor dismissed it outright. By contrast, I was convinced that with roles so rigidly defined that a man must stay away from home-making chores, an oppressive environment was in the making. Thus I ranted about women not being consulted in their futures, about how men make war and then sit and argue at the peace table. My views were not going to shift.

The following day, Edita sought my help with her English studies. Without a strong foundation in English grammar myself, I found it difficult to explain the rules of my native language. Swahili, by contrast, had structure at least, and Edita was the more successful teacher when she turned to advising me on my new tongue. In the afternoon I met with the students again along with one of Mote’s relatives. When this fellow had to depart, we walked with him part way towards his home, as was the tradition there. Then, returning to Mote’s room, we sat discussing music, since this seemed to be integrated into their whole existence.

In my presence they demonstrated how their fine choruses emerged, flowing from deep within their hearts. The result was moving song that made my spine tingle. Together they explained that the rhythmic words arose spontaneously as an element of their Christian worship. These were hymns for the sake of worship, they claimed, not for the sake of tradition. They said that their tribal rhythms and collage of voices sometimes moved people so much that they turned to Christianity through listening alone. Although he was out of practice, Mote had a real talent on the guitar, his fingers achieving such diversity of rhythm. When I returned on Thursday, I arrived armed with a compact tape recorder with which I captured eleven of their songs. Most of them were songs of Christian worship, with the exception of my favourite, Tanzania ni nchi nzuri (Tanzania is a very beautiful country) and a love song, Nampenda Coletta (I love you Coletta). The high of my new found friendship was welcome, but perhaps it would not last so long.

Friday 21 June was one of those days of emotion. At quarter past nine in the evening, a very sick child was brought to Phyll as the doctor on the campus. In her mother’s arms, she was sick, her worried father looking on, and Phyll gave her some kind of injection. It struck me as a strong reminder of how fragile life is and how precious all people are. The previous night the father of one of the night watchmen died of illness, and now there was this sight of a hopelessly weak child. All I could do was pray. I did not know what the illness was, or how serious it was, but the concern that I saw in Phyll’s face after the family left told me that this was a delicate situation. I felt sad realising that this family was lucky in being able to see a doctor and I wondered how many other families would go without health care at a time like this.

So that night I prayed, seeking the aid of our Creator. As an agnostic at that time without the strong faith of my family, it was something that did not come from me easily: but the sight of that poor little girl prompted me to take the only action that was within my grasp. I did not have strong faith because I believed in sincerity: my life was full of doubt, actions and thoughts that would please no one, and so I thought that my prayers would be worthless to a generous God. Writing my journal the following day, I wrote about how it was sometimes easier to pretend that I was lazy and to stay in bed, than to explain my real reasons for not going to church. I did not think that anybody really understood or tolerated that, but to do otherwise left me feeling like hypocrite and extremely uncomfortable as a result. But still, after the family left us that night, I turned and prayed to God.

With genuine concern and real sincerity, I prayed in the darkness until I was too tired, begging for an answer well into the night, asking that the little girl would be blessed and return to health. Were my prayers answered or was it just the dowa (medicine), I asked the following day? I did not know, but hearing news of her recovery, I decided not to reject my initial reaction: that someone up there had listened to me. I had friends who would have laughed at me because of that, but this was not about my friends. This was about the fact that I was brought up with faith and yet had been struggling to find it for myself for the previous four years. I did not know if I should read unnatural reasons into what I encountered, but sometimes I believed so strongly that there was something guiding me. I found myself in the heart of Tanzania with a group of Theological students who despite myself had offered me great friendship. I found myself listening to their beautiful choruses and gripped by discussions about how the church should act in our world.

In my diary I wrote that I could not help my beliefs and fears. I could not help it if I seemed to keep what I believe very private. Some people have very strong faiths, I wrote, but I supposed that I was not one of them. I found it very difficult, but religion kept on confronting me and good Christians kept on reaching out to me, whether here in East Africa or on that remote island off the west coast of Scotland. Writing then, I thought that I might be searching all my life, but said that I would not give up. The previous day I had seen a vomiting, dehydrated child. Today she was looking so much better and was eating at last. I wanted to praise the Lord for that.

On Saturday, Phyll was required to put stitches into a little boy’s head, after the college’s head driver apparently hit him for poking a pig with a stick. The boy was the son of the head driver’s next door neighbour, who was also a college driver. Seeing the blood running down his face, the boy’s mother cried that if her son had killed the pig she would have paid for it, ‘but how would he pay for our son?’ When the man appeared to show no remorse, the boy’s parents decided to involve the Police, but the following day we learnt that the head driver had suddenly fallen very ill.

With the start of a new week, we climbed up the hill behind the college again, following the same route as the spring trail to begin with but then veering off in another direction. We eventually came to a halt on some open ground around three hundred feet above the campus, taking in a spectacular view of the plains in the distance and the hills beyond. After staying there for a little while, we followed another path further up the hill that was used by the charcoal burners. Almost at the top of the hill there was a stone lined pit which acted as a charcoal oven, the ground all around it littered with small fragments of the blackened wood. In all these villages, charcoal was sold as fuel for cooking and that tasty smell used to hang in the air all the time,

So close to Rwanda and Burundi, news from those two tiny countries was always relevant within Tanzania. On Tuesday 25 June the BBC World Service reported that a Burundi delegation was meeting in Arusha to discuss what neighbouring countries could do to prevent genocide like the one that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Here in Tanzania I had met refugees from that sad land. Our neighbour was already a refugee from the previous upheavals in Rwanda in the 1960s, but in 1994 she lost her mother and sister to the killings and now looks after her sister’s daughter. I was immensely touched by the great strength of these people. While I found myself with tears when I thought of all the pain and suffering that had has risen from that slaughter, these folk explained that their Christian beliefs allowed them – people of two fighting tribes – to come together in work and fellowship, and to avoid conflict. Never in all my life had I encountered such strength after such heartless pain.

With my parents and my sister due to arrive in Tanzania imminently, we left Kongwa at ten in the morning on Monday 1 July. The landscape seemed much drier and dustier than it had been when we drove across it a month ago. The view travelling east was stunning, much more so than when travelling west from Darussalam, with fantastic views of the mountains ahead of us. Away from Kongwa and towards Morogoro the land looked very fertile, the ground dark brown unlike the red sandy dust of Kongwa. The closer we got to the coast, the greener the land became. On our way we encountered a group of baboons running across the road. We bought bananas and sodas for lunch while we travelled, and a young boy sold us hard-boiled eggs when we stopped briefly later on.

Along the route there were skeletons of tankers and trailers every so often, with all of their valuable parts stripped away and taken for rebuilding. We arrived in Darussalam in the middle of the afternoon. The streets were busy and here I encountered my first African traffic jam. It was good to feel the heat in Darussalam for Kongwa has been getting chilly. Tucking into chicken and chips – a welcome change to red beans and rice – we had our evening meal at the very modern Jungle Café. We were staying in the Catholic Secretariat again because the hotels were too expensive for us, two poorly paid missionaries and a student. I found myself doing nothing but listening, for the city sounded busy: jet aircraft flying low over the roof top, police sirens wailing in the distance, trucks rumbling past outside and voices in Swahili. Seeing these people rising early and up until well past dark, I wondered if Tanzania ever rested.

Travelling though the city streets, I loved a lot of its architecture, even if much of it seemed to be decaying, with Arabic and Asian influences seen all around. I thought that I would like Zanzibar because I loved the Indian-Arabic style of architecture. Most people in Darussalam lived in modest houses, however, some in concrete five storey flats. The old, impressive buildings were mostly government offices.

We collected my folk from the airport late into the evening on Tuesday after a busy day in the city. We had spent the morning shopping and attending to business, passing some time in the library at the British Council where I wondered whether I had stepped into another world. It was a smart building with a neat garden and was very nearly silent. The streets outside were crowded with salesmen, and there I bought a couple of bootleg cassettes featuring Lucky Dube’s latest album for 1600 shillings (about £2). Later on we spent the afternoon at the Bahari beach hotel. Phyll told me that they used to feel as I did, arriving in that luxurious setting after a month of simple living, but they had overcome the feelings of guilt, recognising that everybody deserves a break and a treat sometimes.

Construction of big houses along the road out of town towards the hotels was underway, in the new expensive suburbs of Darussalam. Upon the verges along the roads there are men making cement building materials, such as building blocks, decorative cement fencing and castings. This was a city alive in trade and enterprise. At every set of traffic lights people would run up to the car to attempt to make a transaction. I liked Darussalam a lot, for it seemed to be a cosmopolitan place. While there would always be the turning of heads as we walked on by, this city was an open place not at all like Mpwapwa. Where the crowds were smaller and people looked my way as I approached, I would utter those words Swahili folk use to show their respect. Shikamoo, shikamoo, all day, to these people in their beautiful country.

Our return to Kongwa came on Wednesday, with a journey that seemed much longer than before. Just as we had done on my first trip, we stopped in Morogoro for lunch and to do some shopping. My mother ventured into the market with her sister and my sister to buy some food for the coming week, and returned with expressions of joy written upon their faces. They loved the atmosphere, their reaction just more confirmation that my own pessimism was rooted in paranoia.

During the week that followed, I felt that things were changing. With the arrival of my folk, the Swahili lessons ceased, while Mote was now occupied preparing for a relative’s wedding. Something had changed. By Sunday 7 July, something was bothering me. It may just have been the news on the World Service, which made me rather depressed as I imagined the picture rather than writing the stories off as mere statistics. I saw the image of a Tamil Tiger rebel in my mind as I heard about her on the radio; she had blown herself up as a human bomb. And then I read in the Weekly Guardian newspaper about the murder of a Muslim woman in Bosnia. I thought about it and I wondered how anybody could be so evil. The world depressed me because I knew that I was helpless to stop the selfish, ignorant hate.

That day I wondered how people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu had the energy to continue their battles for justice and peace when bad news just struck me down. The massacres were not statistics: no, my mind was overflowing with hideous images of bodies and the faces of victims. I lamented that there was nothing that I could do and I wrote that my illness was seeing reality. Oh, the power of the media: perhaps my weeks without the newspaper were preferential.

Still, I introduced my parents and sister to the congregation in church that day, greeting the people first in their own tribal language and then continuing in Swahili for no more than two minutes. After lunch we walked through the village and along a dry river bed. Still insecure, I felt uncomfortable walking through the settlements uninvited, but continued onwards with my family nevertheless.

The next day we returned to the capital, Dodoma, in preparation for our flight to Musoma early on Tuesday morning. We went for a walk in the evening from the airport and MAF compound to the Post Office in Dodoma. Alas I still could not get used to the laugher accompanying the finger-pointing and cries of wazungu as we passed by, and I was left feeling angry. I began ranting about the wrongs of racism and the insincerity of those who could only see one kind of racism. Looking back on my journal entries I am amazed to read my thoughts from that time and how I joined dots that may not even have been there, to the point that I was launching into tirades again the gesturism of the anti-racism movement.

For some reason I suddenly had all this anger. I found myself unable to balance the struggle that I had encountered over the previous month with our new-found holiday intrigue. For a month or so I felt I had been living a life, but now we were marching around in our brand new boots, VCR in hand, snapping the sights with our automatic camera. I did not want to regurgitate my experiences on my return into a five minute sound bite about how this year I ‘did’ Africa and how splendid it was.

This was my first visit to a poor country in my life: prior to that I had travelled abroad in Europe and to New England in the United States of America. Nothing had prepared me for Tanzania and I found myself completely off balance. I knew that the purpose of holidays was to have fun, but I did not know if I had the right to have fun here when I saw people walking barefoot, carrying buckets of water on their heads. Did I have the right to have the time of my life, I asked myself, when life seemed to be a privilege for many people here? We were staying in one of the poorest nations in the world and we were viewing it on the liquid crystal display of our video camera.

I think I can still understand the discomfort I was feeling a decade ago, even as I deride the immaturity of the writing that journal of mine. I had had a very sheltered upbringing and I was suddenly in the midst of a whole new world.

The journey onwards… to be continued.

Tel Aviv

What on earth have the Israelis been fighting for? I have just had the misfortune to encounter a three metre high Think Israel tourism promotion on an advertising board whilst returning from Jummah this afternoon, which features an up-close image of a virtually naked woman. So there we have it: a nation apparently founded on ethno-religious principles believes this is the way forward. Forget about Tzeniut in modern Israel – the Torah is clearly old hat for God’s chosen people in His promised land.

Stupid News Day

I woke up late this morning, but now I’m up it seems like one of those Stupid News days. There was one of those debates about Islamic extremism and the moderates on the Radio 4’s Today programme on my way into work. Yahya Birt made a useful contribution, but the same could not be said of the author of a book on Immigration and Multiculturalism. He went off on the predictable “what do we mean by moderates” tangent – 40% of British Muslims believe in Shariah Law, he said, so when we’re talking about extremism it is a much bigger problem than we think.

He didn’t want to discuss the question of how we tackle those who think it’s a good idea to blow up innocents on the public transport system; he wanted to broaden out the discussion to cover anyone who thinks drinking alcohol is foolish and consuming interest is abhorrent. Well how is that going to help you prevent people from engaging in acts of mass murder? How does insisting that I am an extremist help you? I abhor wanton violence (I won’t even watch Hollywood shoot-em-ups), I pay my taxes, I don’t drop litter, I work in the public services, I try to be nice to those around me and helpful too, and yet you insist on labelling me an extremist. Sorry, I just don’t see how this helps you deal with the issue at hand.

It wasn’t the only Stupid News item. Once again the BBC is making much of Zacarias Moussaoui’s attendance of Brixton Mosque. I call it a Stupid News item because anyone who knew anything about Muslims would realise that – as people required to pray five times a day – we will attend the mosque wherever we find ourselves. So I have prayed in Brixton Mosque (once) and in the famous Finsbury Park mosque too (twice). I have also attended the Muslim Welfare House mosque in Finsbury Park many times, and Central mosque, and East London mosque, and a tiny Bengali mosque behind Euston Station. I have prayed in the Muslim Heritage mosque in Westbourne Park, the Shia mosque in Maida Vale, the Sufi mosque in Cricklewood and the prayer room in the back of the Salafi bookshop there.

I have attended the main mosque in West Ealing and the Pakistani mosque five minutes away. I have prayed in a Bengali mosque near Kings Cross that used to be a pub, and I have been to the Murabitun mosque in Norwich. I have attended an assortment of mosques in Peterborough, and the former Methodist chapel mosque in Hull. I have been to Hounslow mosque, and two in Southall, and I once tried to find Acton mosque. I have attended York mosque and Stirling mosque, and the Goodge Street mosque, and Aylesbury mosque, and Chesham mosque, and one in Leicester, oh and the Turkish mosque in Leicester too. Then there’s the Turkish mosque in Shoreditch and the other one up near Dalston. I have also walked past the main mosque in Dodoma, Tanzania, while I have attended many different mosques in Istanbul and the Artvin province of Turkey, not to mention my flying visits to Izmir, Izmit, Rize and Ankara. I have even utilised the Prayer Room at London Heathrow Airport and Wycombe General Hospital. Is that news? There’s a whole selection for you, depending which label you want to assign to me today.

The other piece of Stupid News focuses on how terror suspect Khalid al Fawwaz led prayers in Woodhill Prison in Buckinghamshire for a short period in 2003. Again, what is so incredible about this? In the absence of an imam, any of us can lead a group of Muslims in prayer. When friends visit my house, I lead the prayer. If I visit someone else’s house, my host will lead the prayer. In university prayer rooms up and down the land, students are leading others in prayer. What are the journalists thinking? Funny frock? Dog collar? Evening song and mattins? No, dear journalist, it really is not extraordinary at all.

Now I admit that I don’t really have any idea what goes on inside a Synagogue or a Sikh temple, but then it’s not my job to know. But these are journalists – it is their job to find out what is going on in the stories they are reporting. If journalists feel they have earned the right to lambaste bloggers as fountains of irrelevant opinion, they should at least try to prove it. These Stupid News items only seem to confirm that many of them are as stupid as me.

It was narrated by anonymous…

When I was studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my dissertation on this subject, proposing a concept of review and accreditation for popular Islamic publishing in the United Kingdom.

I have been reflecting on this recently after encountering several instances of individuals offering sincere advice to others on matters pertaining to our religion. There is nothing wrong with this of course; indeed it is commendable. What troubles me is that the advice is offered by people who care not to tell us their name. One would understand that someone in fear of his/her life or prosecution might seek refuge in anonymity, but each of the cases I have witnessed has been quite straight forward: the photographer receiving an anonymous letter warning him that his trade is haram; the commentary on nasheed culture published by a concerned anonymous Muslim; a writer given firm but kind advice by one who does not reveal his or her name.

Compare this to the enlightened days of our ummah. A reading certificate defined which books scholars could use, while a record of regular attendance was always kept by those promulgating books of hadith. Details were kept of who had listened to the entire book, who had joined in partially, which portions they missed, and the dates and location of the readings. The certificate was an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.(1) Muslims were so concerned about the preservation of knowledge that an entire science developed to determine the authenticity of hadith. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar wrote about the science of hadith: ‘It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information.’(2)

By contrast we do not know if the anonymous author is such-and-such, son of so-and-so, student of such-and-such, nor where they obtained this knowledge and whether they have a reading certificate to accompany their advice. We simply do not know. Consequently I find myself pondering that question which I first asked six years ago. At the time – considering an Islamic heritage that placed great emphasis on the authentication of knowledge – I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also on the structures of peer review set up in the scientific and academic publishing industries.

In a society that argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths, the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection can obviously be considered an affront to the concept of freedom of speech – indeed, to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa. Two authors writing about publishing in Muslim countries almost a decade ago noted that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities, ‘set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.’(3)

While many advocates of unrestricted free speech would welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless. I was in favour, therefore, of the tradition which saw Islamic scholars confident of their role as guardians of knowledge. I noted that Rosenthal, writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam, argued that there was little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas into what constituted Islamic knowledge.(4)

In an age in which the publishing medium has been democratised – the photocopier, the personal computer, desk top publishing and the Internet are all within our grasp – it is important that we keep our rich heritage in mind. The exacting sciences designed to preserve the teachings of Islam developed for a reason: to protect us as believers. When it is narrated that anonymous reported that an unnamed scholar forbade such and such, we know that it is not right. Let us honour those great men and women who passed before us who strove to safeguard knowledge for our benefit. We can start by putting those remarkable traditions into practice in our own lives.

Sources
(1) Al-Azami, M.M. (2003) The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UKIA)(2) Anees, M.A. and Athar, A.N. (1986) Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (London: Mansell Publishing Limited)
(3) Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4
(4) Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)

Troubled Writer

Exactly a decade ago I spent every day, between the hours of about two in the afternoon and three in the morning, tapping out a novel called The Beauty of the Lion. I had just finished a short contract testing mapping software on the Science Park in Cambridge and had returned to my parents’ home. I don’t know how they tolerated me, but I spent about five months solid writing that book. When I had finished, I printed five limited editions on my HP inkjet on some plaid A5 paper I had bought from WHSmiths. My father then took the pages with him to the office where he had them bound.

Shortly afterwards he kindly ordered me a dozen packs of guillotined A4 paper, which arrived in thick A5 blocks wrapped in brown paper. A few more copies promptly popped out of my printer. I say promptly, but there was me printing the odd pages from each one of the twenty-nine chapters, each one stored in a separate Word file, turning them over, setting the file to print back-to-front and then printing the even pages. My sobs when it pulled multiple pages through the printer at once were audible throughout the house. When I had finished I flew off to Tanzania to spend forty-nine days with my missionary uncle.

By the following summer, after a year at university, I had decided to re-write that novel, having concluded that the original was a pile of #@£$. I wanted to make a decent book out of it, so I spent my entire summer holidays working through it. Again, I don’t know how my parents tolerated me, but they did. The first draft had been all about race, the new one more about religion. The shift in my writing reflected what was happening in real life, as attested by The Neurocentric column published in the student magazine. I never finished this draft for by the following summer I had embraced Islam and was shunning the creative life.

The Neurocentric disappeared from the student magazine and all work on the novel ceased. A couple of years later in a fit of disillusionment I deleted the files from my computer and threw the printed copies away. A week or so later I wondered what on earth I had done; the writing may have been poor, but those books were part of me. I frantically searched for some software to restore my files, for they were long gone from the Windows Recycle Bin. I searched my Zip disks, my floppies, the odd CD-ROM. Some files, at least, I was able to restore, but half a dozen chapters from my latest work were gone. There was once a manuscript from that one circulating amongst friends – it is the only remaining copy of those words – but I have no idea where it is, even if it still exists.

I have written on this web log before about why I ceased to write in this fictional setting. I stopped for three or four years, although there were moments now and then when I returned, or thought about returning. The urge to write remained, but I was often disillusioned. I did not know if I still could, or still should. There was another aspect: in the past I had been a rather angry chap and so I used my writing to work things out of my system. As a Muslim, however, I no longer have that anger, or at least I cannot sustain it. If I am angry, my prayer makes me calm again. With five prayers in the day it is nearly impossible to use that anger, to put in down on paper. Rage is such great inspiration, but Islam has made me calm.

Around four years ago, however, I finally came to some sort of peace, reconciling my desire to write with my Islam. I perceived a need. And so began a new novel at last. It is a tale about the way power can corrupt and temptations overcome us. Progress is incredibly slow, but at least there is a work in progress. These days I am employed full time and I am a married man. I cannot lock myself away for hours on end; especially since I haven’t even shared a paragraph with my good wife in three years. Progress is painfully slow. No more than 90,000 words in three years. But at least I am writing again.

Despite the constant requests, I am reluctant to share my novel even with my wife or a writer friend of mine because it is disjointed at the moment and would not make sense. I have long since abandoned the first chapter which I wrote three years ago, thus my original second chapter is just hanging there while I rework everything. Alas it was not a short chapter either, so it is quite a substantial gap. While reading a bit of Wilde and a bit of Dickens recently made me re-evaluate my chapter structure and make them much shorter, those early versions were 16,000 and 36,000 words respectively. The early text was also set in a fictional town circa 1993, while it now encompasses a very real landscape and a new decade – so continuity is hugely wanting.

What is more, the way in which I am writing this novel causes reluctance. As I have said before, I describe it as “layers upon layers”. I usually start by rushing the dialogue down, then I would go back to really work on that dialogue. Later I would move on to the environment, the setting, the details. Sometimes it’s the other way round – I have swathes of atmospheric text I am really happy with, but the dialogue is hollow. I would say I have a continuity of twelve chapters now which could be considered a complete first draft – from what was my new first chapter – and the original long second chapter, but beyond this all I have are islands. Some of those islands are there because I haven’t got to them yet, but many others are there simply because they are so difficult and I am avoiding them as long as possible.

People think I am crazy: I am the author after all. Why am I making things so difficult for myself, they ask. It is the gap between formulating the story and my ability to tell it as I want it to be told. It is really hard work. My writer friend was asking me why it is taking me so long a couple of weeks ago. I explained that I tapped out my first novel over just a few months a decade ago, but it was a load of rubbish: it had no stylistic merit whatsoever. This time I want to write something that is “good” at the very least.

I have picked it up twice this week, but only managed five sentences. I am lazy, or easily distracted, or I have a very short attention span. Emails took me away from it. The Neurocentric took me away. The call of my garden pulled me away. A forum for writers distracted me. My evenings pass me by too quickly. I do not want to neglect my wife. So much to take me away. I may pick it up again this evening. It is Friday night, I may work into the early hours. I may.

But then again, I said I would cook a pie tonight; I said I would do my share. Sorry, dear novel, I must neglect you once more.

To be nor not to be?

It is a question which I have written about many times before, but one which seems to recur almost in a cycle, returning every three weeks or so: to write or not to write? The latest turn—having only just reconciled myself—arose when I read a comment on this site about the role of the people of knowledge. As I have noted repeatedly, we are a people commanded to speak good or stay silent, thus I wrestle with myself regarding this passion of mine. I love to write, for it brings me joy and relief; indeed it is a tool of counsel, clarifying thoughts that were at first confused.

As I reconcile myself to this passion, I consider my writing a gift from Allah. Some are given the eloquence of the tongue, others the hand of the calligrapher. Some are given great strength and energy, others compassionate gentleness. Everyone is given their gift, to be used to glory of their Creator and His way. And yet, that question recurs. Is it a gift or is it a test? Is it a tool to be used to benefit my faith or is it a distraction that replaces God-centeredness with the ego? Constantly I ponder this question.

From where does this dilemma come? Is it the legacy of the culture which first nurtured me when I was new to my faith? Throughout the Muslim lands we find the most beautiful mosques, flowing calligraphy, stunning tiles, works of poetry and literature, but my new faith seemed to look on these with contempt. In my mind, it became an almost Protestant Islam, painting over a rich tapestry of history with rough whitewash. Presenting an acultural view of life and religion, all those achievements of the ages were presented as nought; indeed they were viewed as the going-astray of the believers. So the architecture of Alhambra was seen as decadence and the scientific endeavours of Bagdad were viewed with ambiguity. Thus when I visited a Muslim country for the first time—Turkey in this instance—I viewed the great mosques not with wonder but with a kind of dismissive derision instead.

I believe this is a question which continues to trouble me and it is no doubt the root of that other question of mine: to write or not to write? For I have an ambiguous relationship with the arts, with those nuances of the human condition. On the one hand my faith inspires me with beauty, whilst on the other better believers state that true knowledge is our only armoury. Thus I am caught between the desire to put my talents to the service of my faith and the fear that they may rather lead me astray. The result is that I do nothing.

But why so much thought and so many words? Since early childhood I constructed tales in my mind, though I was never inspired to put pen to paper. Throughout my youth I was the laziest of boys, never exerting myself in anything other than daydreams, but upon leaving school and moving on to sixth-form college I had a wonderful English tutor called Eleanor Marsden who encouraged me like no teacher had before. My writing was poor, but nevertheless she nurtured this nascent interest and I am in many ways indebted to her. Two years later I completed a lengthy novel, tapped out over about six months of constantly sleepless nights. It was an immature work with few stylistic qualities, but it laid the foundation for everything I have done since. It made me want to write. It was followed by a diary of two months spent in Tanzania. Then, at university, The Neurocentric began in the pages of the student magazine; rantings that somehow fed my search for God’s pleasure. Those angry protestations of a weary agnostic, damning the believers for the faith they refused to share. And there was the rewrite of that novel of mine over the summer holidays, shifting the plot along with my thought patterns away from race and onto religion. My style had developed significantly—though looking back on it now, I see it was still hugely wanting—and the plot was more mature. It was a piece of work I never completed for by the following summer I was a Muslim, shunning this creative life.

Why so much thought and so many words? I suppose it lies with a renaissance in that desire of mine to write. Four years ago I finally began thinking about that novel again, three years after pushing it all aside. I pondered it and, realising that the impetuous for that particular story had long since passed, I decided to start afresh. Three and a half years ago, the work got underway. Sadly that question—to write or not to write—has disrupted this work all the way through. I completed the first chapter in Turkey early on (but subsequently scrapped it) and the second chapter neared completion the following summer. Yet all the time I meander between the two states. I began the first chapter once again around November last year—but I only manage to write for about eight hours in a month—starting with a spurt and then giving up once more as the disillusionment strikes yet again. I have had two novels on the go since the new Gregorian year: one that is already complete in my head but which needs to go down on paper, the other still coming together in my mind. Both of them urgent, and yet nowhere near completion. And now there is a third one just beginning.

To write or not to write, that is the question. Muslims are beginning to recognise the power of the media and are thus starting to engage it. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, even satellite TV are now within the Muslim’s grasp. My sights are set lower perhaps, but I see a vacancy for a Muslim Dickens in this land of bookshops and literature read on the tube. The question is: will I ever reconcile myself to this passion?

Stand up for truth and justice

As everyone knows, by and large I live under a rock. So I did not appreciate the depravity of the “protests” until my arrival at work this morning when I had my daily roundup of the news on BBC Online. The first image shows what appears to be a white woman in Niqab holding a placard with the words “be prepared for the real holocaust” written across it. Further down the page there is another picture with three more placards displayed, all penned by the same hand. I am almost lost for words. I tighten my lips lest I vomit and hold my eyes lest tears emerge.

We have had our say about the cartoons; now let us have our say about these men and women who have defamed our religion and our Prophet by extension, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him. We must speak up and condemn them, just as those who printed the caricatures were. Our blessed Prophet, peace be upon him, told us: “Islam is good character”. Well look at us!

Of course there are those doubts: who called in rent-a-mob? The compassionate souls involved in the Drop The Debt Campaign and Live8 had to contend with their share of anarchist provocateurs; people who don’t believe in the cause, but do like a good fight. I was once going to Jummah prayer at Regents Park Mosque when journalists were milling about outside. As I hurried along Hanover Gate, I passed someone I assumed to be a journalist going the other way, his ear stuck to his mobile phone. I have often wondered about the snippet of conversation I overheard. It may have been innocent, but still I have doubts. Some people were due to arrive after the prayer and then they would get some good pictures. Perhaps it was just his sound crew; perhaps it was just a camera man. But when I came back out of the mosque after the prayer to the sight of hysterical offensive screaming from a group of men standing on the flowerbed, the TV cameras fixed on them, I had to have my doubts. Even so, even if these people are saboteurs — though sadly it’s quite possible they’re not — it is imperative that we condemn them with as much rigour as that the Danish newspapers were subjected to.

The questions asked by politicians are valid; why did the Police not arrest those individuals who shouted these obscenities and those who carried those words? We should be asking the same questions. We have laws that prohibit incitement to murder and incitement to racial hatred. Arrest them. The situation has become so stupid; having insisted so vehemently that there can be no limits to freedom of speech in Western democracies, we now have a situation where these events were simply allowed to come to pass. Clearly this case actually shows that there can and should be limits to freedom of speech, if only the secular extremists would reflect. As for us Muslims, I hope I never now hear anyone justify those actions. We cannot have it both ways.

As I have pointed out before, in the Islamic worldview a word is an act. Thus to slander someone, backbite or lie are considered reprehensible sins. As said our blessed Prophet: “He who truly believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or keep silent.” This should be our guiding light. Those who wanted to march, protest and picket should find out where those people live and take their protest to them. If you marched to protect the Prophet from the slander of the artists, march now to protect him from the defamation of that crowd. If we do not, our hypocrisy will be telling. We are a community commanded to stand up for truth and justice, but I fear we are becoming something else.

A very poor show

In general I enjoy listening to programmes on BBC Radio 4. I don’t own a TV and only buy a newspaper about twice a month (usually The Independent, for my sins), so the radio is my main source when keeping abreast of current affairs. A pretty good job it does too: not least Start the Week for literature and the arts, but also the nature, politics, ethics and technology programmes.

Every so often, however, you hear a programme that makes you wonder what has happened to British “quality” journalism. I heard one such programme on Saturday night (15/10/05) entitled A War Against Prejudice, repeating an edition broadcast earlier in the week. The focus of this programme was a Jewish organisation known as the Community Security Trust and its alleged role in exaggerating claims of anti-Semitism in British society. I must confess that I know very little about either subject, but it seemed quite clear to me as an outsider – an English Muslim of Anglican stock — that the programme had been made with preconceived ideas. Listening to this documentary it was impossible to ignore that feeling inside, that the programme maker had begun with a conclusion and had proceeded to build his case around it.

When Gerry Northam interviewed members of the Jewish community – and Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain – who would lend support to his thesis, he used blatantly leading questions. By contrast, when he interviewed Melanie Philips – whose frequent anti-Muslim views turned me away from listening to The Moral Maze – he probed her fear of anti-Semitism without the impartiality one would expect of a journalist. When Philips recounted her experience of a woman telling her that she “hated the Jews, because of the way they treated the Palestinians”, the journalist embarrassingly offered his own explanations for this. Why?

This is not to argue that the premise of the programme was incorrect; two rabbis and a Jewish sociologist lent some support to his case, if not entirely voluntarily (although the programme did make the Community Security Trust sound like a secretive organisation akin to the BNP, but with links to the Metropolitan Police a better likeness would probably be the Muslim Council of Britain, albeit a more advanced version). Instead, my complaint centres entirely on what looked liked a most imbalanced form of journalism.

What concerns me is that we are likely to turn a blind eye to this sort of journalism – for 1) it does not affect our community and 2) it does affect someone we don’t like very much. Yet as a community that is commanded to speak the truth even if it is against our self, is this the right attitude? I wonder if we would find more success in our campaigns against distorted media presentation of Muslim issues if our own vision were not so closed. If our mission is to fulfil the role of being a mercy for mankind, is it not time that we put aside the dreadful claim to be the chosen people that has crept into our communities and instead stand up as witnesses to the truth?

It was back to business as usual on BBC Radio 4 yesterday afternoon, with Libby Purves chairing an excellent discussion in the last fifteen minutes of The Learning Curve on the effect the proposed Anti-Terror Legislation may have on Universities. Well worth a listen.
Quite separately, does “PM”, the title of their rush-hour news-hour, stand for “Permanent Moan”?
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 19, 2005 07:23 AM

Just found your excellent site. Whilst being an unbeliever I have immense respect for sincerely devout believers of all religions. You are reflecting the side of Islam that is sorely missed in our media. Most of my Moslem freinds and colleagues share the “moderate” (for want of a better word) interpretations of Islam you are promoting – more power to your elbow! However on the specific issue of Anti-Semitism in Moslem communities, I am often disturbed by the willingness of some Moslem friends to use offensice language about Jews. I have also noticed also a tendency to believe in “conspiracy theories” about “Jewish Control of America”. The evils committed against Palastinians are obviously at the root of this as is the American incabability to criticise israel. But this does not justify some of the Anti-semitism that I hear (generally from Pashto speaking Moslems- so maybe this is a cultural thing), who confuse Jewishness with Right Wing Zionism. We need to see a wideranging and open debate on this.
Posted by:
chris October 19, 2005 09:52 AM

“I don’t own a TV and only buy a newspaper about twice a month (usually The Independent, for my sins), so the radio is my main source when keeping abreast of current affairs.” You what? How the hell can you be a blogger and be so cut off from all that information?!? I assume you must read some online news right?
Posted by:
leon October 19, 2005 01:44 PM

Leon, you’re right of course. Do I have to do the backtrack thing (someone will have to explain it to me if I do)? Yes, I browse BBC online when I get to work at 8am every day and (I forgot about this) I watch a wide range of news programmes on Broadband via the wwiTV portal (http://mediahopper.com/portal.htm). A slight oversight, but you have to make allowances – it’s Ramadan, we’re fasting, low blood sugar. In any case, you get the drift – I listen to Radio 4 an awful lot. Why is it the afternoon play is always really good when I’m late coming back from my lunch break? I could sit in the car park all day.
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 19, 2005 05:22 PM

Hi Chris, thanks for your feedback, tho I certainly wouldn’t categorise myself as a devout believer. Personally I dislike the term “Anti-Semitism” as “Racism” would do, although (note the contradiction) I always thought Muslims (as followers of a Semitic religion) would have been better cottoning onto this phrase than coining “Islamophobia” — but there we are. In any case, I wouldn’t deny that the tendency you mention exists in the Muslim community. I asked a Spanish Muslim about this when I was a new Muslim about seven years ago; his view was that it is a recent phenomenon which has its roots in colonialism and the Israel-Palestine problem, and is not historical.
But there is another thing to consider. The Islamic narrative insists that the Children of Israel were Muslims, thus much is said about them in the Qur’an which recounts tales of those who went before us in order that we might reflect and not repeat past errors (alas we fail to understand). It is often said that such passages are “Anti-Semitic” — I think contemporary Muslims often miss the point when they lament “Islamophobia” — we now fulfil the role that the Children of Israel fulfilled before us. We wouldn’t call the Qur’an “Islamophobic” of course – sadly, we just ignore it instead.
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 19, 2005 06:03 PM

I regret that it is not true that Anti-Semitism is caused mostly by the Palestinian-Israeli situation. When working in the Gulf some years ago someone asked a Syrian colleague (a friend of ours) why he did not trust the Israelis. He gave an answer which I did not expect-“because the Jews of Medina did not keep their covenant with the Prophet.” I have heard this many times since. There is something more deep-seated than the easy Palestine explanation here. The publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the Arab World-the making and broadcasting widely of “Horseman Without A Horse” based on this forgery, plus all the conspiracy theories about how the Jews run everything show quite clealy that there is a deep seated problem about accepting an Israeli Jewish state in the middle of the Muslim World. Posted by: Frank October 19, 2005 09:46 PM

On a related topic does anyone else feel uneasy about the nature of the “anti-semitism discourse”? It seems to be presented more as a genetic defect than a prejudice. For example calling it “the oldest hatred” seems to imply something primordial about it. Most significantly of course is the fact that it’s given a seperate title whereas hated towards all other races is just classed as racism. Another worrying aspect is that the target of the “anti-semitism discourse” in the west is mainly muslims and people on the Left in countries like France, Britain and Germany. In Russia and Ukraine you’ve got members of the governments there making openly anti-jewish remarks yet places like that come far down on the list of the most anti-semitic places.
Posted by: Shamilaskov
October 19, 2005 10:17 PM

My grandmother – who is Anglican – when reconciling herself to the fact that I am Muslim recalled that she had been told as a child not trust Jews and Roman Catholics; but, she said, when she finally met both a Jew and a Roman Catholic they were the nicest people she had ever met. She told me, despite all the things people say about Muslims my Muslim friends were absolutely lovely. Prejudice comes in all forms and sometimes it’s because people isolate themselves that it persists.
Posted by:
The Neurocentric October 20, 2005 05:16 PM

Stimulation for the soul

Following tradition I am ill once again during my stay in Turkey. This time at least it’s not a stomach bug; I just seem to have caught a bad cold (in this heat!). Still, this hasn’t prevented me from experiencing the better things of life. I am back in Istanbul again and attended a nice Jummah prayer in an ancient mosque over looking the Bosphorus, followed by Maghrib in Taksim. Both times the Qur’an was beautiful; both times I looked around to see young people in the congregation. It is nice to be back in civilised company.

Yesterday we spent the day in the company of a Professor of International Relations and his family. He is a specialist in Turkey-EU relations, Democratisation and Human Rights – and proved interesting company. Then we spent the evening in a luxurious neighbourhood with my wife’s best friend and her family – who happened to include a Chief Advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister. All of these people were Muslims, but more than this, they were intelligent – people you could hold a sustained conversation with. No generalisations and cliches. It was a pleasing change.

The assault on the senses wrought by hours of football on Turkish TV every night and dull broken-record conversations covering the same ground again and again and again start to take their toll on you after a while. A change of environment is most welcome.

Behold the believers

Coming to Turkey for the past four years I have largely been in the company of loud and often rude atheist secularists who chain-smoke perpetually and frequently declare their dislike for Muslims. Apart from the elderly who still attend the mosque five times a day, even those Turks who would assign the label “Muslim” to themselves freely drink alcohol and mock their brethren with their atheist friends. One such person who was adamant that I sit next to him in the mosque on Eid two years ago, less that twelve hours after he made fun of me for not drinking alcohol, now exclaims “Al-Fatihah” (i.e. the name of the opening chapter of the Qur’an) as a substitute for a swear word whilst watching football. Sure enough, I have met decent Muslims here, but not many whose teeth still grace their mouths or whose hair has not yet whitened. Instead most of the people I meet my age, younger and into their middle-age follow the Cult of Ataturk which has become a new religion in its own right. Saddened, my depression came to a head last Tuesday whilst staying in a mountain settlement up above the clouds. Sitting in the white walled mosque I scribbled my thoughts down in minute characters on a scrap of paper:

I feel frustrated in this once great Muslim land. It seems like the Turks I come into contact with have lost respect for their heritage, their land and themselves. There is no-one under the age of fifty in the mosque – all the faces are aged and wrinkled, mostly ancient as if soon to pass from this world. Instead the middle-aged men spend their days drinking and gambling, mocking the religion of their forefathers. They do not believe in God or the Prophethood of Muhammad, they say; they believe in Ataturk. In respect for this cult they furiously attack the Muslims, ridiculing them to the best of their abilities. They refuse to say “Salam” because it is Arabca (Arabic) and insist instead on “Merhaba”, oblivious to its Arabic origin. They do not respect the culture which brought them beautiful mosques, gardens, homes and art – their culture is concrete apartments, satellite football and Raki.

Like their disrespect for their heritage they show how they do not care for their land. All around, the ground is little with cans of Efes Pilsner. The streams sourced by natural springs are filled with detritus, plastic bags and cigarette packets. Beneath a sign which reads, “Water gives life, do not pollute it,” the earth is hidden beneath more cans of beer. It is true that the earth will cleanse itself – when the snow comes in a month’s time the streams and land will be washed clean again by the melt that follows it – the huge boulders strewn across this landscape witness to the power of these waters when they come. But how will the people cleanse themselves when they have lost respect for their heritage and their land?

Yesterday, however, I caught a glimpse of another Turkey; one that has been shielded from me since I first set foot in this country. A young generation of Muslims exists after all and I detect an inkling that there is a living Islam out there. The stagnation and opposition I have seen thus far is only one face of this once great Muslim land. A cause for optimism at last.

Can African publishers publish African authors and keep them?

Textbooks make up ninety percent of Africa’s total book production. Whilst the continent’s population makes up twelve percent of the global figure, it produces only one percent of the world’s books. As a result, the remaining ten percent of Africa’s book production, which includes liturgical materials, academic books and gray literature, makes up a tiny and almost insignificant proportion (Chakava, 1996, pp.79-81). The affect of this situation on African authors is put by the President of the Ghana Association of Writers:

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Blame makes it all Right

Two years ago, I sat in a concert hall in Grenay, northern France, while the mayor of the town used our performance as a backdrop for his political speech. According to him, our orchestra was ‘a fine example of how the youth of today were the people who would break down barriers and share their qualities regardless of nationality’. (A lie, he would have seen, had he witnessed the xenophobia of a number of our group, walking through the streets that morning.) The slogans dominating one end of the market place, displayed that the Communiste Municipal Party were playing for the votes in that town.

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Friends

It is when you feel down that you really realise that the friends you have are worth more than anyone else in the world. It should be obvious that the friends you have are worth more than the ones you don’t. I was so, so down one evening; I had hurt someone in a desperate attempt to become anonymous and to be someone that I’m not. Someone who was arrogant and carefree. Someone who could blame someone else for his own mistakes.

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