Monday, October 7, 2013

Almodovar: Against Soft Sighing Skies

Early evening light drips through the giant windows of the tour bus and we lean our heads against the glass. We've spent the morning at the Grand Mosque in Cordoba and now, as the sun slowly makes its way across the sky, we wind our way up a road that twists round hills of dry earth. We are just outside Cordoba en route to a family farm in the hills, where the Almodovar community of Spanish Muslims are hosting us for salat al-maghrib (evening prayer) and dinner. As the bus heaves up the hill, I place my hand against the glass and feel the warmth against my fingers. I hardly know where I'm being taken, but this sense of submission, of being lead to where you need to be, no input required, is liberating.  

"Look up there -- " Our guide, Tariq (from Andalucian Routes), points to the hills. We shift in our seats and follow his gaze. The skies are already yellowed from the onset of evening. "Do you see that building? That's Madinat Al Zahra -- that's where we're going tomorrow." Tariq holds the microphone loosely in his right hand and there's a furrow in his brows as he explains how we will visit the ruins of a palace built by Abdur Rahman III, that we'll walk through the remnants of what was once the most functional, advanced, and prosperous city of its time. 

Tariq has a particular way of speaking that even on this -- the second day of our travels -- I've come to enjoy. He is impassioned, but not overbearing. His accent doesn't have the grating edge of a posh Londoner and though I know he's from Birmingham, his intonations are soft, but quick, one word kicking into the next in quick succession. Combined with his placid demeanour, his voice has the unique effect of simultaneously engaging and calming you. 

Out the window
I scan the hills--mounds of green shrubbery dot rippled earth that alternates from ruddy brown to light shades of dry brush. I spot a sprawling building perched against the rocky cuts of earth -- its walls are a soft, butter yellow and the ledges are carved into delicate motifs that seem to scrape gently into the surrounding scenery. I glance around the bus to see if I've spotted the right structure and as if reading my mind, Tariq leans over and looks out the window. 

"No--no--not the monastery. That big yellow building is the monastery. There -- up, on the left." He points again and as I shift my gaze, the bus rounds a curve and the view is lost. 

Shaykh Abdullah Hakim Quick sits at the front of the bus, just in front of where Tariq now stands, and when Tariq pauses, he turns in his seat and speaks to the group. 

We are immediately attentive. As anyone who has grown up listening to the Shaykh's lectures knows, his measured, but direct manner of speaking has the effect of making you pay attention. Every sentence seems to have a push of energy behind it, an intensity that exhales into a state of awe--it's as if he is always marvelling at how things are and how they could be. 

"Madinat Al Zahra is the point when the idea of building palaces for yourself, the idea of a leader somehow deserving a palace--this marks the beginning of a loss of imaan (faith)." He nods, his glance flitting up the aisle, then resting at some distant point out the window. He turns back, handing the microphone to Tariq. 

Already, there is a sense of loss that accompanies each site we visit. As the bus lurches on, up this winding road that seems to curve on and on into the burning horizon, I have the distinct feeling of being placed in a story, of knowing what it truly means to be a traveller. You step forward into new landscapes with your chest split down the middle, your ribs yanked open like a gateway. The good --  it flows in easy and you walk on eager, chin lifted to the sun. But to lead with an open heart, is to walk forth vulnerable and exposed, every branch in your path scraping your heart raw, every moment you experience taking hold and not letting go. And though this can injure, I think there really can be no other way to travel -- not if you want the experience to be more than fleeting. 

We have moved deep into the hills and as the bus curves round, we see the first signs of the village -- lines and lines of whitewashed houses stacked like lego bricks at the base of a hill. Tariq points out the window again, half smiling. 

Almodovar Castle, Cordoba
"They've got a castle in their backyard." 

High up on a hill, rising up from the earth like an ancient fairytale is the Almodovar Castle. Built by Muslims in the year 760, it was lost almost five hundred years later to Fernando III in the year 1240. It stands today on one of the highest points of the landscape, perched like a crown against soft sighing skies, a testament to the way history will unravel itself in slow, but deliberate turns, every catastrophic loss a pinpoint on a map we can only see in fragments. There is perfection, but we see it in hindsight; we hardly recognize the light or the beauty until we stand at the very edge looking back.  It could not have happened any other way.

The eastern sky sighs from blue into white and we circle round and round, higher, then deeper. We snap pictures, our shoulders pressed up against the glass, the reflections in the window showing up as gleaming streaks in our photos, the flashes from our cameras as flaring, artificial moons. 

The bus pulls to the side of the road and exhales, slowing to an abrupt halt. 

Into the bush

Cicadas -- we are off the bus and trekking down a wide path of hard-packed dirt into a deafening cacophony of shrieking cicadas. The path is lined with thick vegetation -- short, stubby pomegranate trees with nubs of small fruit, low draping branches of olive trees, the giant, dinosaur-like aloe vera that looks monstrous enough to eat you. The incline of the hill is not severe, but we are breathless once we reach the clearing. Here, the rest of the group has already gathered. Tariq stands next to a young man -- he is slight, his features gentle. He smiles wide. 

"Welcome--" He addresses the group in English, a Spanish lilt edging his words in thick strokes. He tells us that this place -- a family farm, but also a hub for Islamic gathering and learning -- was started by his father, a Spanish Muslim, and continues today through the efforts of his children and the local Spanish Muslim community. As the day slips out from under us, I smile. There is loss at every turn, but then there is this -- a small community of Muslims amid groves of olive trees. Muslims, here in Spain, passing the branch of Islam from one generation to the next, and the next -- 

Almodovar, Cordoba

The horizon deepens to rust and we climb an iron staircase that leads to the rooftop.  From here, we stare out at the plains where lines and lines of olive trees roll over the dry earth in calligraphic strokes of brooding green. We lean over the railings almost breathless -- the sun burns low behind the hills and the sky sinks from bright white to purple shadow, the air still. And all the while, cicadas buzz like electricity in voltage lines -- everything seems electrified. We take turns posing for pictures with the backdrop of the castle behind us and at sunset, a hush spreads through the group. The adhan, quiet amidst the hum of the cicadas, undulates outward into the plains, or emanates from it -- it seems part of the landscape, rolling out from the earth itself. 


The call to prayer is just a human voice that beckons people to submit. To come, acquaint yourselves with success, to walk forth in the name of your Creator, to press your forehead against the earth and know with certainty that He made you. That your heart, that nub of flesh that winds in upon itself in hurt, in grief, in anger, in rebellion, in abandonment, in hope -- that your heart is made by Him and He knows, He knows. Every pulse of pain that makes you cave inward -- He knows. Every grief that has you press your hand against your chest to dull the ache  -- He knows. And the adhan -- it calls you to Him, to return again and again and again to the one thing that will relieve and revive you, to the one thing that will carry you through.

Adhan in Almodovar
Photo Credit: Khalidah Ali

The group slowly files back down the steps to the mussalah (a dedicated prayer space) to join in congregational prayer. I turn back and rest my arms on the railing -- I know that this was written for me, for each of us. To think that He wrote this moment for me -- standing on a rooftop in the plains outside Cordoba, me and these brilliant burning skies -- to think that He put each of us here so we could speak to Him, so we could bear witness to the perfection of His plan -- is this not a blessing? Is this not mercy? 

The sun has sunk low and the horizon is ink against the fire of the sky. I am alone on the rooftop and the cicadas still hum, their buzz like the white noise of rainfall all around me. I hurry down the steps to join my companions. 

Stay tuned for Part II of our visit to Almodovar.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Greetings from Al-Andalus: Contemplation (1)

My journey to Al-Andalus -  the Medieval Islamic empire that covered what is now Spain, Portugal, and the Southern bit of France -- was something I'd booked with hardly a second thought a few months ago. It was a historical tour of Islamic Spain with Sh. Abdullah Hakim and guided by Andalucian Routes. After a quick browse of the website and an additional week in Morocco added to supplement the time we would spend in Spain, it was booked and almost forgotten.

In the days leading up to my departure, I found myself in a such a hectic frenzy of obligations, I hardly had the time to reflect on what I was doing. I didn't pack until the night before and I barely checked our itinerary until the day of our actual flight. I relied on my friends to tell me when to be at the airport -- and for someone as OCD about flight times and details as I am, this was just something else. I wanted to avoid this kind of frenzy, this mindless onward push through life, but there I was yet again, in the midst of it all, barely breathing. 

“[Those] Who remember Allaah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], 'Our Lord! You did not create this aimlessly…'” [Quran 3: 191]

Contemplation. This is what leads us from one peak of our life to the next. It's what guides us out of our valleys, up onto the rocky sides of mountains we don't think we can climb, to the brief plateaus where we marvel in awe, in grief, in submission, and up, up, up to the highest point of our lives. 

Life pulls you on and on and sometimes it pulls you so far in, you are pulled apart. You wake each morning and you fulfill your obligations in a state of numb disarray; you do because you must, or simply because it's what you've always done. A litany of destination points stretch out before you--you will meet each one and then you will move on to the next and you will go on doing and doing. And the years will pass. 

There is a point high above you on the horizon that you never reach -- perhaps you're not even aiming for it. It's a point that remains in your peripheral vision all your life, and though you can see it, you don't always know how to get there. Sometimes the desires of the self, rather than the soul, lead you down other routes. Other times you are lost in the syncopated rhythm of life, every step another beat in an unknown direction. But that point was placed for you in your line of vision and it never moves -- in His wisdom, it's there even when we look the other way. When we turn towards it, He pulls us in. It's the point that leads us home, to Him, to the kind of fulfillment that holds your heart and fills it with light.  

Our hearts -- our hearts -- they are strong and resilient, but when they are in a state of pained existence, or worse, when the heart is in a state of such worn fatigue that it simply wants to lie flat in a plane of nothing, because in the absence of everything at least it can find rest -- in this state, the rest of the body suffers, the minds suffers, and the soul--it wants to flee. Because truly, how does one exist when nothingness replaces your heart? 

Al-Andalus was a point placed on my horizon and when I reached it and looked up, I felt my heart unfurl in the way a leaf uncurls itself to soak in the morning light--hesitant, but so eager for nourishment. I am no great human being; none of us deserve the blessings we receive; they come to us in blinding waves of mercy from Him because even as we cradle our own hearts in fear, even as we build fortresses around our hearts in a desire to protect, He knows our hearts more than we do. He knows, and so He gives. 

I do not want to be the traveller who stands before the wonders of His creation and can only see the inside of her own mind. To contemplate the state of your heart and relate what you see to your own life, desires, and purpose is beneficial. But left unbalanced, it can very quickly draw you into a vacuum where you trap yourself inside your own struggles and fail to truly see the blessings that have been placed before you and the responsibility that has been laid gently, but pointedly into the palm of your hand. If you do not lift your head to breathe, you will miss the brilliance of how the world works so beautifully, you will miss the warmth that exists between your fellow beings, you will miss the miracles. 

Contemplation. This is an all-encompassing act - it combines the necessity of inner reflection with the twin necessities of external connection and individual action. Contemplation stirs the heart so it can beat in the world again, purposefully, with direction. It is what allows us to receive the blessings we are given with humility and gratitude. 

“[Those] Who remember Allaah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], 'Our Lord! You did not create this aimlessly…'” [Quran 3: 191]

He did not create all this, or us, aimlessly. Every moment has a purpose. Our lives sometimes seem like maps of scattered constellations -- how do we make sense of it all? But there is wisdom in the way our lives spin out before us, wisdom that we don't understand until we're standing at the edge of the map looking back and taking everything in. Only at the edge of not knowing can we look back and see so clearly how everything in our lives is laid out in precision, how every moment had a distinct purpose and that we are brought to where we are by virtue of a thousand moments that only He could place in our path.

I pray these records of my contemplations in Al-Andalus will be ways of striving towards an understanding of our ultimate purpose. May they be sources of goodness for me, and for others, InshaAllah (God Willing). 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Be Still: The Art of Not Writing (or, Writer's Block)

I was in that place -- that lush, viney creative jungle where everything is vivid, colours blare, and the ideas seem endless--everything is bright and ready. The grey of your everyday is  electric with detail and there are connections everywhere. Small things, subtle things, they zip across your line of vision and you hold them; they have weight, potential meaning. You can string together an entire life in a night, or tunnel into the psyche of a character who lay lifeless for months. It's a great place to be. Life resumes purpose and you can smile again.

But there are dangerous thoughts.

The creek will run dry--this seems like a non-negotiable conclusion. Eventually there will be nothing to say. You'll reach that place where you look out across a burning skyline and think that this is nothing new, that this is just sky. There are no spires tipping into the wilting fog--there is sky and concrete and the heavy burden of people's stories. This is drudgery. This is too much. Your world is a dry plateau and  if you thrust your heel into the earth, there is a disconsolate thud and nothing more. You don't imagine there could be more. Why should there be?   Will there ever be anything new? Is this the only thing you will ever create? 

And I suppose this is where the melancholy dips dangerously into a stagnant depression. It feeds a cycle of non-creation and guilt, where once stopped it is difficult to get started again. But I think when you reach a place where stories become burdens, where you can sit in a train station and scoff at the people walking by because you don't care anymore, their stories are simply too much for you to take in--it is a time where not writing becomes a defiant, desperate, but ultimately creative act.

If you are not writing, you may in fact be creating--or more accurately, cultivating the grounds within yourself that are needed for creation. If stories are burdens, there is a creative need not being met. It is the need for regeneration, the need to recluse and lie flat. This is a period where you feel stagnant, but you must allow nothing--the invigorating blankness of nothing--to lay itself over you. You must relieve yourself of guilt. To be stagnant is to be in a state of non-movement, seeming non-progression. But the stillness you allow yourself, makes it possible to feel again. The urge--to notice, to be interested--comes back.

It is difficult to be still. Other people move past you; they are alight, everything bright and bursting for them. But, you are here. You are probably alone. It seems that you should be doing many things--writing, creating, accomplishing, but you are doing nothing. This is desolate.

But to recluse oneself in this circumstance does not mean you must go into seclusion--it can, but it does not necessitate withdrawing from the world and living only with the degeneration of your own thoughts. It simply means to remove yourself from stimuli that you cannot, at the moment, take in. It is a period of latency that is necessary for the period that follows--a period of renewed creativity and vigour.

Allow yourself to be still. Time will pass. Let it.

You will start to notice small things--just a word or a phrase that sits on your tongue; you like the way it feels, the roll of it against your palate. Out of defiance, you may resist--you may not want to begin again, but soon the world will start to light up one detail after another. This is when you begin to stir. You push yourself. You write something down. It starts small and simple--the way late afternoon light  hits the side of a woman's nose, the skin wet, hair follicles perspiring--and grows.

The world buzzes.
Begin again.