Monday, February 17, 2014

Almodovar inspires: Life is not just an endless, onward push into oblivion

Van Gogh's "The Olive Trees" 1889
In the small masjid that flanks the west side of the house, we sit fanning our faces with our hands, the air heavy and warm against our necks. Maghrib prayer has just ended and our hosts are seated at the front of the masjid, their voices soft in the din of cicadas that rises from the grove outside. They speak of their efforts with Junta Islamica, an organization dedicated to the establishment and integration of Islam in Spain and Web Islam, a project of Junta Islamica that focusses on the dissemination of information about Islam in Spanish

Over the years, Web Islam has become the primary Spanish language website providing information about Islam. It aims to fulfill what we've quickly come to recognize as a hunger for information related to Islam. There is a genuine curiosity among the local populations to investigate a history that weighs heavy with Islamic influences, a history that simultaneously seems to coincide with and provide new light on modern day events. I make note of the website and then slide my journal into my satchel, my eyes drifting to the doorway.

Outside, there is a fountain-tap – a tiled structure with taps that stream cool water used for ablution before prayer. The masjid spills a circle of light onto the pebble-flecked dirt that is packed around the fountain. I step over ankles and knees and slip my feet into my shoes.

The sky is inky blue, almost black, and it rises in breaths of stars. I stand at the edge of the grove, where long strands of dry grass have webbed themselves into heaps that scrape at my ankles. I look into the darkness between the trees. Olive trees are squat; their branches drape low and I can reach out and hold a young green olive between my fingers. The leaves are small and slim, they taper to a point and I think of what my mother – an avid gardener – would notice if she were standing here in my place, these stems of olives in her hands.

"Olive Grove Night Drive"

But as I look into the trees, I am frustrated with my own insistence that there must be meaning, that there is something to be gained from simply making an effort to find it. This insistence that meaning must exist wherever I look is the kind of hunger that isn’t satisfied. It doesn’t allow for a moment to simply exist, for you to exist in it as a point among many points in a diagram of infinity. It dismisses insignificance and makes an appeal for purpose, for signs, for something that tells you that you are here and you matter, this matters, the world itself matters. But as I stand in the grass, brushing my ankle with the toe of my shoe to disperse imagined insects, I want to simply be still. To allow myself the simplicity of existence. Of being here just because He decided to put me here.

Something lands with a thud by my shoe. I bend and find a purple, plastic pony, its nylon hair gleaming in the light. I turn, pony in hand, and find a small girl standing a few feet from me, a half-smile tilting her lips. She wears a cotton flowered dress, her hair in a slim braid that juts out from the back of her head. I smile and fling the pony into the air, watching it arc into the sky. As it rockets down, I reach out and catch it in midair. The girl skips and breaks out a smile. I toss the pony to her and she reaches out to catch it. It bounces off her shoulder and hits the ground.

She picks it up, throws it to me, and I catch it. She jumps, clapping her hands together.

            Me llamo Khadeeja. She points to her chest. Como te llamas? She points at me with her chin.

            Me llamo Shoilee. I press my hand to my chest.

We toss the pony back and forth skirting the edge of the olive grove, the moon a saucer behind us in the sky. As the pony arcs through the air, sometimes landing at our feet, sometimes hitting an elbow or flicking off the tips of our fingers, we trade words.

            I point to the olive trees.

            Oliva, she says.

            Oliva, I repeat. I turn and point to the sky. Moon.

            La Luna, she waves her hand in the air.

            I toss her the pony. She catches it and her eyes widen. I cheer.

 She flings the pony into the air. It sails past me and rolls into a heap of dried grass.

We toss the pony back and forth – oliva, la luna – before I head to the fountain. The group has begun to spill outside, women reclining against the fountain, breathing in the night air. One of the women turns on the faucet and splashes water onto her face, leaning forward into the spray. Even after sunset, the heat is thick, the air like a sodden blanket on our faces. The tiles are wet from splatters of water. I find a dry spot and sit, leaning back on my arms. Khadeeja stretches out on her back next to me, her eyes squinting in the dark. She asks me a question in Spanish, her brows furrowed. The words spin from her mouth in quick succession. I shake my head and offer her a half-shrug. She wrinkles her nose.

             I ripple my fingers towards the sky.

             Stars. What do you call them?

             La estrella. 

Khadeeja raises her hands in the air and then clasps them over her chest. She turns to me, her gaze insistent. She repeats her question twice, then three times and I can do nothing but shake my head and smile weakly.

I have no words to offer her – I wish for the ability to say something more, to have words click with meaning in my mind and roll off my tongue in those fleshy notes of Spanish that seem to dance out of peoples mouths so musically. I lean toward her and smile.  She sighs. She speaks to the sky. She speaks with such emphasis, her brows furrowed, her lips screwed tight, her hands playing with the air. In moments, her voice drifts into soft, dreamlike tones and it is as if she is the only one here, lying under that giant platter of a moon, ripples of light painting stripes across her face.

Gathering for our evening meal. Photo: Khalidah Ali

In a few moments, everyone trickles out of the mosque and gathers on the verandah for a home-cooked dinner. The walls are a burnt-orange and in the light that spills from fixtures that look like lanterns, everything glows. We balance small clear bowls of brothy soup on plates piled with potatoes that are so soft, they fall apart on our tongues, with stewed eggplant that boast a tart, but heavy-bodied flavour that heats us from the belly up. There is warmth and simplicity in this food; it fills us up and our hunger is stayed, but it does something else too. In the best possible fruition of clich├ęs, it fulfills the most basic of bodily needs, while triggering our souls into a state of gratitude.

It is awe that propels us into gratitude – look at where we are, our legs dangling over the edge of a verandah that overlooks an olive grove, the soft burn of conversation rising around us, this limitless sky, this gift of a perfect evening. But, there is also fear, this unrest that curdles in the centre of your chest and spreads out in a paralytic haze. This is the burden of gratitude.

Home cooked meal at Almodovar. Photo: Memona Hossain
Dua – the act of calling out to Allah (swt) is something that we consciously do, but it is also something that our hearts, in commune with our souls, is in a constant state of doing, sometimes without conscious effort. Our souls attach themselves to their Creator and it is as if when our existence begins, we are in a lifelong battle to return to Him. When there is pain in our lives, often so overwhelming it creates a state of numbness inside us, it is a manifestation of our need to connect, to be understood, to rise from the daily infliction of pain in its multitude of forms and simply be relieved, to exist in a state where you no longer have to get up.

With our hearts in their vulnerable, even nightmarish states of pain, disease, and disillusion, I don’t wonder at our inability to articulate what it is we need to heal ourselves. And I think, it is in these stretches of silence that the duas we never thought to make, are taken up by Him and fulfilled. When we are given moments like this, when we experience connection and unity and fulfillment, when we find ourselves standing up with every cell in our bodies somehow revived, it is thrilling, but it is also terrifying.

Awe can bring us to gratitude, but gratitude is also a state of awe. And perhaps this is it – the acute understanding of His magnitude, His endless mercy, His understanding of every shadow that spreads like a watermark across our hearts – perhaps this is what brings us to our knees. This is what makes us know how small we are, but also how much what we do matters. The realization that everything matters – moments don’t just blip on and on into an endless compendium of other moments. They exist as pinpoints in a map of our life, every moment contributing to the next one, every destination a prerequisite for how we can or will be in the moments to come and how those moments affect and collide with moments in a million other lives in ways we can’t begin to imagine.

And so, this evening with the Almodovar community of Muslims, this witnessing of community revival and survival, this experience of how vast and varied the spread of Islam was and continues to be, this union of goodness among people of such diversity – it places the tremendous weight of gratitude upon our hearts. But, with this weight, there is hope. Life is not just an endless, onward push into oblivion. There is hope that what we do with what we are given, however small and labored our efforts, is accounted for, is part of something bigger that we haven’t come to comprehend, but we believe in. It’s how we go on.