Month August

  • Ramadan nostalgia – the aromas and tastes of childhood memories

    This was my weekly newspaper column from a couple of weeks ago.

    The air, just as the time to break the Ramadan fast draws near, feels different. It’s not just the sweet softness of dusk that means that you can almost taste it in your mouth like melting caramel, or the golden haze of the sun diffracted through the kitchen window that makes its scent linger like the smell of cookies browning in the oven. It is that the air at the time of iftar carries the fragrance and memories of childhood.

    If as an adult you can never find food that is as tasty as your mother’s cooking, then the food she cooked for iftar is a hyperbolic form of nostalgia evoking heightened senses.

    For me, it is the smell of roti, Indian unleavened bread, that triggers the nostalgia.

    image courtesy of

    They were hand-kneaded from wholemeal flour and water, a task that I took over once my child’s hands were large enough to grasp the sticky ball, and strong enough to pummel it into a stretchy dough.

    I would help my mother roll it into perfect circles and then let it cook in an iron griddle for a few seconds on each side, flipping it backwards and forwards until it was cooked all the way through and evenly toasted on both sides. I would then cover it with butter, place it with the other rotis, and close the lid firmly on the tin so they stayed moist and soft until the time for iftar.

    Ramadan is not just about memory, it is about tradition and culture. And so while the rotis of my Indian extraction still make my mouth water, my East African heritage evokes Ramadan’s sense of reconnection to my roots.

    My favourite of these is the most deliciously named, and delicious tasting Makati Mamina. It is an East African sweet made of ground rice, coconut and yeast, and then gently cooked in a large deep frying pan until the coconut rice has set into a gooey crumbly sweet. To give it a golden kiss it is then grilled until brown on top.

    For me, that is the taste of Ramadan.

    I was reminded of this dish when I was sent an email of traditional Ramadan recipes from a friend of a background similar to mine.

    It was circulated among those of us who had shared childhoods drooling over the same iftar foods.

    I read through the recipes not just with my taste buds on fire, but with my rose-tinted spectacles pushed firmly back on the bridge of my nose remembering a more innocent and pleasurable Ramadan.

    There was no work, no childcare duties, no worries about the world to interfere with the pure task of fasting.

    The reason those rotis and that makate still taste so good is not just because nostalgia makes food taste better.

    It is because it reminds me of a time when I was more innocent. And innocence doesn’t just heighten taste – it heightens gratitude for what you have, through the sheer pleasure of having it, through the simple accomplishment of the task of fasting.

    As an adult that gratitude comes from another source: the result of understanding that we are fortunate for what we have when so many round the world, like those many thousands of people suffering from famine in East Africa, have not just little, but nothing.

    As an adult that means the goal of the fast has been achieved: it reminds us not just of the pleasure of food but the pain of others.

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  • Anticipating the first coffee of Eid, and the pleasure and sadness it brings

    This is my weekly newspaper column at The National, in anticipation of Eid this week.

    Eid celebrations will be taking place around the Muslim world this week. It’s a time, rightly or wrongly, of indulgence and pleasure: fine clothes, good food, high-fat, high-carbohydrate sweets. It’s a day when the spiritual focus of the previous 30 days is mostly forgotten, even though Eid is supposed to be a celebration of spiritual renewal, a cleansing of sins and of a fresh start.

    Dear cappuccino, let me count the ways I love you

    I confess that although I aim to uphold this sacred meaning of Eid, I’m not immune to engaging once more in the pursuit of pleasure in the daytime. The first exciting thing about the day of Eid for me is my morning cup of coffee. Its consumption is a celebratory ritual. My husband and I will usually go to our favourite cafe and breathlessly order a cappuccino, excited at its return to us after 30 days of daytime exile.

    The cappuccino – above other kinds of coffee – offers us the opportunity for a beautifully decorated reintroduction to the flavourful morning shot of caffeine. The froth is elegantly smoothed over, like the icing on a birthday cake, and freshly ground cocoa is sprinkled on it in the shape of a pretty heart or coffee bean.

    We normally stare at the coffee, then at each other, then back at the coffee. After a month of absence, our hearts have grown fonder, and we are enraptured by the return of the beloved. Lifting the coffee cup to my lips after a month of daytime separation, I experience the reunion of lost lovers.

    Even now as I write this in anticipation of Eid morning, I feel mixed emotions about my longing for that first sip of coffee. The shiver of delight as the first warm drops slide down my throat. The disappointment in myself that, having given up coffee for a month, I should so easily return to my (mild) addiction. The sadness at the loss of Ramadan’s intense spirituality.

    What my cappuccino also reminds me of is the distinction that each human being faces between the pursuit of contentment and the pursuit of pleasure. These are clearly different things, although at times we may confuse them. Pleasures need not be shameful or sinful. My coffee is neither, and gives me intense pleasure, and pleasure is rightly a part of the human experience. But as the coffee warms my mouth, I can’t help but recall the preceding month of Ramadan where it was the pursuit of contentment that was paramount.

    Contentment is a funny beast. Talking of its pursuit is perverse – you cannot chase it, rather it must come to you. Sometimes you don’t know you were contented till the moment has passed. That is the essence of Ramadan. The emptiness of the belly, the lightheadedness of the body, when first experienced, feel like physical torture. But slowly – and often in hindsight – we learn to identify that the absence of pleasure has created a space and a stillness that allows contentment to settle, despite its elusiveness.

    Rumi says: “There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire.”

    Eid is a day of transition where we learn to reintroduce the pursuit of pleasure into our daylight hours. Will I still be able to hold on to the slippery creature that is contentment? I’ll let you know after I’ve enjoyed my first cup of coffee.

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  • New mummies sometimes wish we didn’t have to work and could just look after our babies. Is it heresy to say such things?

    This is my weekly column published today in The National newspaper.

    Enjoying baby

    Stay at home mum?

    or is it that looking after baby is really quite fun...?

    In the darkness of the night when I wake to feed my baby, I hold her close to me as I have each night since she was born. Yesterday was her seven-month birthday.

    I know her facial expressions from every angle, the way that she gently sighs when she has drunk enough milk and is ready for her nap. I know that when she drops her head to one side she will slither away through my arms to escape. I know that she loves to poke her curious little fingers into my mouth and then smile. I imagine it’s baby code for, “I love you Mummy.”

    When will she able to say these words out loud, I wonder, because already at seven months she feels as though she is a little person.

    She and I have created our own social network. We get together with other new mums and babies to compare notes on nappies, sleeping and weaning. We attend baby classes with catchy nursery rhymes and twinkling lights that mesmerise the tots.

    But while the classes are purportedly to aid baby development, they are really a release for us mums. We need it. For the first time we are no longer out in the world but tied eternally to these creatures that are at once gorgeous and frustrating, delicious but utterly restricting.

    My mummy peers and I have had university educations, worked for the largest global companies, set up our own businesses, travelled the world, and have flown the flag for the modern woman who maximises her opportunities, and appreciates every gift the women’s equality movements have given us.

    But as we now sit together, cuddly little babies on our laps, words cross our lips which we had never imagined we would say: We wish we didn’t have to work, that we could just stay at home and look after our babies. Is it heresy to say such things?

    I dare not look the aunties and grannies in the eye when I am thinking these thoughts, for fear of eliciting tuttings, raised and knowing eyebrows, and “we told you so”. But I also wobble when trying to assert my feminist credentials – after all, shouldn’t I be supermumming it and having it all?

    I thought I had it sussed but the baby has made me reassess everything I thought I knew about being a woman. It’s not just questions about career, travel or public participation that she has made me confront. I thought all of those male-dominated arenas were the bedrock of running the world which we women had to break into.

    I still think that’s important. But I’ve discovered that while those men are busy trying to run the world, it is the mothers who are busy running real life.

    It makes me want to shout out “Let’s hear it for motherhood!”

    In the blossoming of my love for the Little One, I have also seen myself grow even more loving and compassionate towards my own parents. After all, I now understand and appreciate their toil in nurturing me, through the joyful milestones that go hand in hand with the hardships of childcare.

    This process of self-redefinition has recast me from lonely individual into a link in the human chain. And it has brought home the truth of the words: “There are two lasting bequests we can give our children: One is roots, the other is wings.”

    Surprisingly, it is my new little appendage that has helped me strengthen my roots and given me wings. Let’s hope I can do the same for her.

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  • Tariq Jahan’s response to his son’s death shows a dignity and respect that teaches us all an important lesson

    This article was published today in The New Statesman. Tariq Jahan’s response to his son’s death shows a dignity and respect that teaches us all an important lesson

    From the terrible events of the last week, an unexpected hero has emerged in the shape of Tariq Jahan.

    In the face of the loss of his son and two friends in a hit-and-run incident in Winson Green in Birmingham on Tuesday night, he has shown a dignity and wisdom that has been lacking in public figures. And it is his belief in shared humanity and community that has touched the soul of the nation and put him on the front pages of newspapers across the political spectrum.

    He talked of his loss as something that “no father, mother, brother, sister should have to endure”. His appeal to us at this terrible time of violence and uncertainty is that he reaches out to our common human instincts.

    But the fact that he had to emphasise that “this is not a race issue”, and that he had received messages from people of “all faiths, colours and backgrounds”, tells us more about how our society has been carved up by political and media rhetoric than we might care to admit. To the backdrop of the mantra that multiculturalism has failed, and the background voices that this is black violence, it has taken a voice from the grassroots — essentially an ordinary man that sees a reality that politicians have failed to acknowledge — to remind us that a strong sense of community still exists, in spite of what politicians say divides us.

    And, as Cristina Odone explains in the Telegraph today, this is especially strong amongst immigrant and faith communities. The “Big Society” and the “community” that Cameron is so keen on have been in greatest evidence in these places.

    But what makes Jahan the unlikeliest of British heroes is the fact that he is a British Muslim of Asian background from Birmingham. Jahan’s city and faith has been cited in the past with accusations of segregation, ghetto-isation and a rejection of “Britishness” and “British values”. Yet he has expressed that it is his faith as a Muslim that is giving him strength at this difficult time. His words “I’m a Muslim” have been published in newspapers across the political spectrum, including in the right-wing press who days earlier might well have featured him further into the paper attending prayers during this current Islamic month of fasting Ramadan under the title of “creeping Islamisation”, “Muslim ghettoes” or some other such fear-mongering.

    He has tied his faith in Islam with his belief in community, specifying that whether it is your own community or the local community, “it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re here to help everybody.”

    Does that mean Muslims will now finally be seen as part of society? Given that Jahan publicly declared his Muslim faith, will the positive effect of his religion be acknowledged?

    He is not the only one whose religion has been playing a positive role. Since this is Ramadan, a time when Muslims generally display a very strong sense of community, it comes as no surprise that Turks in north London stood outside their premises to defend them. “Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, defending our boroughs & communities”, half-joked the Twitterverse.

    Outside East London Mosque — maligned endlessly for being an alleged hotbed of extremism — young men leaving the mosque after Ramadan prayers chased down the looters. In the same way that the Turks were not described by their Muslim faith, these worshippers were not described as Muslim either, but rather as Bengalis and Somalis. There was little acknowledgement of the positive role of their faith. Even some of the victims are airbrushed: there has been little coverage of the mosque opposite the burnt out carpet shop in Tottenham whose worshippers contended with night prayers during the mayhem.

    These events must make us think differently about our approach to immigration and to Muslims. They are not the demons of our society, they are not the scapegoat for our woes. Rather, they can and should be our heroes.

    Jahan, the grieving father said: “Please respect the memory of our sons.” Accepting Muslims and immigrants as an integral part of our communities is the most powerful means we have to show that respect.

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  • Gallup report adds to mounting evidence that Muslims are loyal (shock!), non-violent (shock!) and tolerant (shock!!!)

    This is my weekly column published yesterday in The National newspaper. It refers to a poll released by Gallup this week about Muslim Americans.

    At first glance, the headlines covering this week’s Gallup report on the state of Muslim Americans, were pleasing. “Muslims are loyal to the US,” reported The New York Times. “Muslims condemn attacking civilians,” said the United Press International news agency.

    Here was clear evidence challenging those who perpetuate fear and prejudice by claiming that Muslims are some kind of fifth column.

    The evidence is plain to see

    My pleasure turned to irritation the more I read. Exclamation marks implicitly followed findings that Muslims oppose civilian deaths!!! Muslims do not see conflict between faith and country!!! Muslims oppose violence!!!

    In between the implied surprise of the headlines, the media coverage gave us snippets of new and fresh information. I wanted to know more. Despite the financial crisis and campaigns such as that against the so-called Ground Zero mosque and real attacks on Muslim places of worship, Muslim Americans are feeling optimistic. Since the last iteration of this report, the feeling among younger Muslim Americans that they are thriving rose to 65 per cent from 40 per cent. Jewish Americans are most likely to have the greatest empathy with Muslim Americans.

    Yet, instead of columnists trying to make sense of such intriguing phenomena, it was Muslim loyalty, tolerance and opposition to violence and terrorism that were seen as news.

    This, despite the fact that these same results keep being found, keep being published – and keep being greeted with surprise.

    In 2006, CNN-IBN-Hindustan Times conducted a survey of 29 Indian states, and concluded that Muslims suffered under a “myth of extra-territorial loyalty”, pointing to the fact that all but two per cent of Muslims said they were “proud” or “very proud” of being Indian. Levels of pride in being Indian were at almost identical levels between Hindus and Muslims.

    In 2009, the Co-exist Index published by the Coexist Foundation in conjunction with Gallup found that European Muslims show as much or more loyalty to their country as the wider public.

    Fully 86 per cent of British Muslims said they were loyal to the UK compared with just 36 per cent of the wider population. French Muslims identify with France as much as the general French public (52 per cent vs 55 per cent). Forty per cent of German Muslims identified with the country against 32 per cent of the wider public.

    But the myths persist.

    According to Europol’s EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, out of 249 terrorist attacks carried out in the EU in 2010, only three were related to Islamist terrorist groups.

    A January report on terrorism statistics based on publicly available data from bodies such as the FBI and other US crime agencies concluded that terrorism by Muslim Americans has accounted for a minority of terrorist plots since September 11.

    The latest report’s findings are great news in terms of adding to the growing mountain of evidence that, like other right-minded human beings, Muslims oppose violence, are as tolerant – and often more tolerant – than their peers and are deeply loyal to their countries.

    These facts must stop being such a surprise. But can the minds of those who uphold the myths in spite of the evidence be changed? If so, that would be a surprise I would greet with as many exclamation marks as I could muster.

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  • Ramadan Blog Post Day 1 (belated)

    (This is a belated posting which I ought to have written up yesterday…)

    Every year I mean to write a Ramadan series  – something posted every day to track my progress, and share my thoughts. It is one of those tasks that as a writer I want to do to help me make sense of the month for myself, and to reflect on my feelings, experiences and actions. It is less about sharing lessons or morals, it’s not about sermonising, but about unravelling some mysteries along the way. And if it resonates with others out there, then so much the better.

    But of course (as life tends to be), I missed the boat. I wondered: should I not embark on the endeavour? It seemed already like a life lesson to be learnt. In previous years if I’ve missed the beginning, I wouldn’t have bothered.  This year, I’m trying a new tack: something better than nothing, better late than never.  It’s a day lost – but still (up to) 29 to go.

    So here are my first thoughts, and structure for the rest of the month.

    Qur’an count: first half juz.

    Ramadan thought for the day: ooh, I like Ramadan!

    Ramadan activities for today: try to call relatives to wish “Ramadan Mubarak.”

    I thought I’d also share this quote from Rumi: There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire. The mists clear, and a new vitality makes you spring up the steps before you. Be empty and cry as a reed instrument. Be empty and write secrets with a reed pen. When satiated by food and drink, an unsightly metal statue is seated where your spirit should be. When fasting, good habits gather like helpful friends. Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give in to illusion and lose your power. But even when will and control have been lost, they will return when you fast, like soldiers appearing out of the ground, or pennants flying in the breeze.

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