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.

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.

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!

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.