• Getting ready for 2012: from money to the meaning of life

    Here is this week’s National column published on new year’s eve.

    As the year comes to a close, one of my perennial resolutions rears its head and commands me: take better control of the household budget. The talk at a global scale of bankruptcy, poor credit and downgrading has made the resolution ever more urgent. Where are my slippery and elusive pennies going?

    Don’t tell my Dad about this confession, he will give me a stern look and tell me that he taught me better, that money doesn’t grow on trees, that a man one penny in the red is a poor man, and a penny in the black is rich. I know I ought to know all this, but before you make me blush, are you able to account for your expenditure down to the last penny, cent or fils?

    The pessimism I feel about my financial management is exacerbated by the fact that it seems ever more important to get a grip on it. Somehow, the fact that the world’s leading economists, and in particular the European leaders, found themselves in difficulty this year while trying to manage a successful budget for their countries, suggests that I should try to do a better job in my own little domain.

    But if all those clever people overlooked the flaws in their financial systems, how am I supposed to manage any better?

    I’ve done what all aspirational budget managers have done: I’ve created an extensive and detailed spreadsheet to list out all the outgoings. And there are a lot of them.

    It’s easy to spot where I can get better deals on regular household expenses – although it will take some time to work through the changes. But the main struggle is in adjusting lifestyle: do I want to give up the enjoyable holidays? I love buying pretty clothes for my baby. And what harm is there in a pleasurable if slightly overpriced cup of coffee a couple of times each week?

    Therein lies the crux of my challenge: getting the best deals is a straightforward if tedious task. My bigger challenge is deciding what kind of life I’d like to live: frugal to the point of asceticism? Cautious and sacrificing some pleasures of daily life? Sensible but enjoyable? Carefree, tomorrow will take care of itself?

    To me, these questions raise the issue of identifying a deeper truth about who I am and who I aspire to be.

    I often think that we could easily live in a much smaller abode, with fewer things and less obligations. Isn’t that the right approach for someone who wants to spend time nurturing their spirit rather than their bank balance?

    On the other hand, our home offers sanctuary for the family, a place of exploration for our child and an enjoyment of the good things in life.

    There’s no profligacy or extravagance. A car, a good school for baby, smart clothes (but not designer) to be well presented, the education of seeing the world on our travels: I see these as blessings we are able to afford. I see these as to be balanced with work for the community, charitable giving and constant thankfulness for all that we have.

    My spreadsheet may help me to balance the books. A spreadsheet can never help me to build a balanced life: for that I need constant reflection, a generous helping of wisdom and a selfless love of those around me.

    Most of all what I need is an appreciation of the value of all that I have, and I am fortunate to have a great deal. What a wonderful way to start 2012. Happy New Year!

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  • How we create the stories that shape the lives and futures of our babies

    Another column I’m posting a little belatedly from my weekly ‘Her Say‘ column in The National.

    On the top shelf of an old cupboard in my parents’ spare room is a collection of aged, fraying bags that hold the memories of our family. I have to stand on a stool and stretch into the cupboard’s dark corners, feeling my way with my fingertips to grasp the tatty plastic filled with decades of old photographs.

    As the winter holidays approach, nostalgia percolates the family conversations, and inevitably someone will wonder about a distant relative, a half-forgotten baby photo, or a snap from a wedding. I will fly upstairs to retrieve the bags, returning triumphantly to the conversation and spilling out our collective memory across the carpet.

    We’ve seen the photos a hundred times, but each one elicits a gasp of excitement, as though greeting the old relatives themselves. “Look, it’s granny! She’s so pretty.” “This is me when I was younger. I’ve become so old!” “Here you are at your graduation!”

    The most exciting pictures are in black and white, fragments of an earlier time when photographs were rare, usually formal, marking special occasions. “This one,” says my mother, “was sent by your uncle after he proposed to your aunt”. He looks like Cary Grant. “And this,” she carries on, pointing to a grainy picture “is my grandfather”. He is serious, almost stern.

    Our family archive lives on in these four bags. Everything else is lost and therefore forgotten. What remains defines what came before us, and therefore what we are now. The camera has preserved and thus shaped our family history.

    This was on my mind this week as I faced up to the growing mountain of photographs of my baby. Although not even a year old, I already possess more than 5,000 pictures of her.

    I have been creating a photobook for her. Websites offer software in the format of a book, which you populate with your own choice of photographs, in any layout and with any captions you choose. Once completed, the online creation is sent to be printed, arriving a few days later in the form of a glossy publication like a coffee-table book, entirely to your specification. At the cost of about $40, it is a modern marvel. Your photographs become official. Viewing them becomes slick and manicured. Family and friends flick easily through the edited highlights, enjoying the best moments, avoiding polite boredom.

    I spent hours, probably days, selecting pictures to chart Baby’s progress from tiny newborn through each of her milestones. I decided who would feature in her life story. I selected which pictures would make the cut, and therefore how she would be remembered.

    My editorial process says as much about me as her. It reveals how I wish her to be seen. I am conscious that how we describe babies affects others’ perceptions of her for many years, even a lifetime. After all, what will remain after our memories have faded are these photographs. We will continue to discuss the photobook in the same way as the fragments of my parents’ haphazard photo collection. But this time, I’ve already consciously shaped the story and the collective memory.

    The pleasurable act of photography is in fact a weighty responsibility. By creating her earliest account I have shaped how she begins her own story. In doing so I have shaped how she will carry on the family history, mine included.

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  • When death comes to the young

    This is my weekly column published today in The National (UAE) and a tribute to a friend who I lost this week.

    There are many things that we fear in this modern age of ours, but none more than the loss of youth. Our celebrities never age, skin creams ward off the signs of ageing, television clothes shows help us dress 10 years younger. And yet this week I was confronted with a stark loss of youth. A beautiful young woman, a new mother, not even 40, was taken by cancer.

    When death visits the young, we have many clichés to express grief: a life snatched away, the loss of potential, the unfairness of life. But she wasn’t a cliché, she was a person.

    I can’t trace the exact time I met her. She was one of those people I have always known, a beautiful, charming and effervescent individual. I see her in my memories smiling, working on community projects, excelling in her profession.

    They found the cancer while she was expecting her first child.

    After hearing the news of her death, I spent the day overwhelmed by the intensity and volatility of conflicting emotions. First, there was an almost frantic hysteria to get as much done as quickly as I could. Then, I felt abandonment. Nothing was important, nothing needed to be done. I felt numb. Then, I surrendered to the sheer sadness and wept, kept on weeping.

    I even felt guilt, at the depth of my melancholy, feelings that I felt should be reserved for her close ones. I can’t claim sadness, sympathy or trauma for myself. That is the right of her immediate family.

    I wonder why this death has affected me so deeply. I think about the cycle of life being broken, a daughter passing before the mother, a baby being left without a parent. Is it sentimentality?

    I gaze at my daughter, an innocent and entirely helpless creature, not yet a year old and only slightly younger than the woman’s own little girl. Do I fear for my own precarious situation?

    We imagine families with two parents, and bouncing children. It is easy to be lost in that fairy tale, immersed in a utopia where death follows old age. It’s frightening when reality is not so Disneyesque.

    Such an out-of-the-ordinary event makes us stop and reflect. But the surprise is that this is not as extraordinary as we might think: the risk of a woman contracting breast cancer is one in eight. And cancer among the young is not so unusual, as campaigns such as Breast Cancer Awareness month in October try to highlight.

    The loss of youth is not just about cancer. Add to this other illnesses, accidents, violent crime and in some places even famine and war, and suddenly our refusal to face up to death in youth becomes stark. In the developed world we pretend we are immune from early death, that it only happens elsewhere.

    The loss of one person changes the course of an entire family. Watching the news I am confronted with reports of thousands of people – individuals – killed in natural disasters and man-made conflicts. We rarely talk of the fact that the deaths of thousands of individuals actually mean thousands of families whose futures have been radically altered, often destroyed.

    I attended my friend’s funeral, an occasion filled with a community’s sadness and love, bearing a communal loss. What we don’t see, and what fills me with even greater sadness, is the grief of families in their own homes, once the last mourner has gone. All we can offer at a distance is prayer, and hope for their hearts to be healed.

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  • The Story of Mum

    Now that I’ve entered the club that is MummyHood, I’ve started to notice more and more of the resources available to mums. The internet of course is a wonderful thing – I can search out others who have similar worries to me (somebody somewhere has gone through what I’m facing with my own baby!), I can read about how to help my baby’s development, and I can do my weekly shopping online (an amazing achievement, and saves the arduous task of carting baby around in the shopping trolley and trying to pack/load bags in the car at the same time). Oh, MummyHood, what hast thou done to me!

    It all feels a bit seriously mummy-ish out there, so it was refreshing this week to see the launch of a site called “The story of mum” whose strapline is “Inspiring mums of all ages to connect, create and celebrate.” It is all about the mum and rejuvenating that creative streak that we all had before baby and which still exists, but sometimes takes a back seat to feeding/nappies/cuddling/laundry etc etc.

    Take a look, it seems quite fun. I particularly liked “Photograph your chaos” because it’s good to know that you’re not the only one whose house can suddenly explode into mess. One minute pristine, and then suddenly…  And what’s not to love about “Buntify your life” by hanging bunting in random places round the house, when it’s framed with the truism – “because being a mum can sometimes be a bit boring.” (you know it’s true when all you’ve done is cuddle the crying little one, feed her and change her nappy, and the highlight of the day is a walk in the buggy because that’s the only way to stop the grumbling.)

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  • My name is Shelina and I want an ipad2 (and a handbag, and make up)

    This is my weekly column for The National.

    My name is Shelina and I want an iPad 2.

    All morning on March 25, the day of the global launch, I wondered if I should go and queue up outside my nearest Apple Store. Should I be one of the anointed legion of iPad 2 pioneers?

    image courtesy of

    I had to restrain myself from lining up to receive the sacrament of Mr Jobs’s latest offering. I pictured myself in the queue: woman in a headscarf, big pram, breastfeeding my newborn baby whilst waiting for the 5pm launch. Would I have traded in my baby to get to the front? No comment.

    I used to mock the Apple zombies, with their illogical dedication to gadgets that are never quite the best available pieces of technology. I’ve concluded that Apple-worship is like being a Trekkie – either you get it or you don’t, and there’s no middle ground. And with the launch of the iPad 2 I’ve crossed over to the dark side. My computer screen is covered with drool as I gaze lustfully at its images online.

    What’s not to love about the slender curves of metal and glass? It’s thin, it’s light, it connects to your TV, and it has a slidey-foldy cover that comes in at least eight colours. We won’t talk about the price tag. Or the fact that I don’t really need one. Or that a newer version will probably be released just as I’ve become accustomed to the sweepy-slidey finger movements that operate this gorgeous little beast.

    Or that it seems to be a slimmer version of the children’s toy Speak & Spell that I had when I was six. Oh, that was a fabulous gadget, complete with liquid crystal display and a keyboard made of squiggly buttons. Perhaps that was the gateway drug to my current gadget craving.

    The smaller and slicker these gadgets become, the more appealing they are. Especially if you’re a woman fighting the perennial problem of the overloaded handbag. And the new iPad 2 – like many other gadgets – is now teeny enough to slide into all but the smallest of purses.

    According to the UK shopping chain Debenhams, the weight of the average British woman’s handbag was a staggering 3.3kgs in 2008, the equivalent of carrying three and a half bags of sugar (and the same as my newborn baby). But, as paper organisers have been replaced by multipurpose phones and laptops that themselves have become lighter, this figure is now a much more manageable 1.5kg.

    It’s not the weight of the handbag – nor the gadgets that reside within it – that are fascinating; it’s the cost of the contents of the typical handbag. This comes in at more than £250 (Dh1,471). And that doesn’t include those luscious gadgets; it is just the cost of all the make-up that women carry with them wherever they go. According to Debenhams, a woman’s supply of warpaint alone is worth as much as £256 on average. In fact, nine out of 10 women said that they wouldn’t step out of the house without their mascara.

    With the entry-level iPad 2 coming in at £399, it doesn’t feel that different in price to all the make-up in the handbag, and probably a whole lot less heavy to carry.

    So now I have to decide: gadget or face goo? Both are about good looks and sleek finishes. The marketing hype for each tells me that I can’t live without them. The solution might be an iPad application to replace the make-up the average woman needs. It could be called iWorthit.

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  • Baby news! It’s a girl…

    The silence on the blog for the last few weeks may have alerted you to some fabulous news – Baby has Arrived!

    courtesy of

    My little girl is more than three weeks old now, and I’m amazed how the days have flown by in a blur. She’s a sweetheart, a tiny little person that has arrived in my life and taken a firm hold. Life Before Baby is now forgotten!

    Many people have been asking her name, so I can now reveal that she is called: “Hana”, and here is why…

    Hana is mentioned in Islamic as well as Biblical tradition, and is the mother of Maryam (Mary), the mother of Isa (Jesus). Hana is mentioned in the Qur’an, although not directly by name, but by her title “the wife of Imran.” The Qur’an describes how Hana vowed that if she had a child she would dedicate it to live and serve in the temple. But when the child was born, it was of course a girl – Maryam. And at that time, only men were permitted into the temple. Hana says “God, it is a girl”, sounding surprised, but I feel she wanted to draw public attention to the fact that women are also chosen to participate in the public and religious domains. We hope the name Hana will inspire our daughter to participate with full heart and joy in the civic space, and to know that her talents and spirit will be a positive force whatever she chooses to do.

    Please do say a prayer for the little one…

    By the way, anyone have one of these I could borrow?

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  • Anxieties of a Mum-to-Be

    This is my monthly column published in this month’s EMEL magazine.

    (An update will follow soon!)

    For first-time expectant mothers, the experience is a reflective one; revealing more about womanhood and femininity than one had expected.

    By the time you read this column, I may have some big news for you. I’m expecting my first child. And it’s very possible that by the time this reaches print, the little one will have appeared.

    When I first discovered I was expecting, I felt it was too early to share the news publicly, after all we’re advised to keep things quiet till after the 12 week watershed. After that, I felt different about myself, my body and my future from moment to moment. How would I be able to capture that kind of fluctuation in a static piece of writing?

    I also started to question exactly who or what I am as a woman. I thought I knew the answer, having spent years on life’s journey towards understanding womanhood. And – this sounds very obvious – I was blown away at how much I didn’t know about myself as soon as this new being settled itself inside me. My whole perspective on femininity and womanhood has started to slowly change. And that is before I’ve even given birth.

    As a teenager, one of the Bearded Uncles had imparted his advice to me that a woman would never be complete until she held her child in her arms. I spent the next few days in a rebellious young feminist’s huff. How dare he impose his patriarchal views that a woman could only be complete as a mother! But already, I know that what I have experienced with this new life growing stronger every day inside me is not something that can be conveyed in words.

    It is unbelievable that the body I knew so well had this innate capability to swell and give comfort to a small embryo. As I write this, only three weeks remain till the official due date, and I can feel the baby’s knees, feet and hands as little bumps that already make my heart melt. I can feel its heartbeat and its hiccups. Anyone placing their hands on the curve of my stomach will share some of the sensation, but it is impossible to convey the difficulties as well as the emotions the new being inside me generates. My mother, aunts and friends had described it to me over and over in detail, but now going through it I see that the intensity of it cannot be verbalised. Being the carrier for a new innocent life fills me with awe.

    This responsibility sits on me as both an honour and a burden, and one of the challenges that I have been dealing with is to live up to the hallowed status of motherhood. In the society we live in, women are supposed to be ‘supermums’ who can work and look after children and have it all. Or they must be ‘yummy mummies’ who wipe their children’s snotty noses and look fabulous themselves all the time.

    But equally when constantly faced with Islamic teachings such as “paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother” it is hard not to feel unworthy of the blessings of motherhood. After all, if paradise lies underneath, then the woman must be of a calibre to merit such status. I ask myself if I will be able to live up to such expectations.

    When it comes to the yummy mummy dilemma and the anxieties generated by the seemingly high expectations of motherhood, I have received my answer from the Qur’an. It is in the surah named after Lady Maryam, the mother of Isa, that I find my solace. This surah is recommended for expectant mothers to recite every day to help with pregnancy and delivery.

    The verse that grabs my attention every time I recite the surah is this one which describes Lady Maryam as she goes into labour: “And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date-palm. She said: ‘Would that I had died before this, and had been forgotten and out of sight’.” (19:23)

    This down-to-earth and realistic approach towards the entry to motherhood that God communicates to men and women gives me confidence. It gives me the confidence that entering the next phase of life is recognisably difficult. It also helps me dispel any cultural myths that motherhood must be all glamour and perfection. But most of all it gives me confidence that I am safe in God’s hands as I become a mother, and that what happens next will be indescribably, amazingly, human.

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  • The missing ‘eight days to go’ post

    I ought to have written this yesterday, if I was properly intent on keeping a ten-day countdown to the due date. But on day 9, lots of you gave me fab advice to stop being so anxious and just chill out.

    So I did.

    And you suffered because you were unable to share the mundane details of the 8 days to Baby.

    A quick recap: the curtains for the nursery still haven’t arrived. The inland revenue paperwork continues to be in progress (eta today). The study is more or less filed away, with about 30 minutes more to go. And I went to visit the midwife for my weekly check up.

    Last week’s midwife couldn’t tell which way my baby was facing, despite about 20 minutes of prodding and patting my belly.  “Not sure” she said. Isn’t a midwife’s expertise in knowing about babies? “Might send you for a scan” she grimaced. A scan? A scan?  No wonder the NHS is short of resources. (that’s my grumpy pregnant lady side coming out.) This midwife identified some important milestones. But she had a terrible snotting cold and kept blowing her nose.

    Some thoughts I’ve had: maybe I express more anxiety than I’m actually feeling? Maybe my fingers and mouth run away with anxious words? Anyway, am trying to hold back.

    Maybe life continues pretty much as normal after the baby arrives, except there is a baby to take care of? (as in: i’ll still write emails, I’ll still go shopping, I’ll still chat to my friends n the phone).

    Some nice things that happened: a lovely young woman trained in hospital chaplaincy offered to support me after the birth. Completely spontaneously. How nice is that?

    And I had a very strong image that I was participating in the hajj, standing outside the kaba. I took this as a very positive sign that the birth will be a spiritual journey, a special invitation to participate at an important event. A blessing.

    For those who are not Muslim, the hajj is an occasion where you have your soul purified, and it is a blessing to be part of it.

    For those not into the whole sixth sense thing, well, it was a very positive feeling. It’s going to be tough (hajj is very tough) but good things will come, inshallah.

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  • Only Nine Days

    Where did the whole of today go?

    Mr Inland Revenue boogie man, along with papers that have needed filing for some time – and yet have begun to seriously irk me – have stolen this precious day. When each days is as significant as 10% they seem to fly by.

    I’m trying hard to reduce the anxiety that I’ve been feeling that I ‘won’t get everything done’, by just taking things at the pace at which they demand to be taken. Which is definitely much more relaxing. I feel much more in control. Until I think of EVERYTHING THAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.

    Some cute things have happened too. I’ve just ordered some beautiful artwork to be printed on canvas and hung in the baby’s room. Hopefully it will be here by Thursday. (Thank you to Lutfi who provided some of the hi-res imagery that I picked out from his collection – just for our baby!)

    A changing table has also arrived to complete the nursery furniture. However, it still remains in its packaging as we’re dreading building it. The previous items have been a DIY challenge to say the least – and no, it’s not us, it’s the poor instructions.

    Some things which were ordered but were delivered incorrectly were taken away today by the nice delivery people – online shopping (and returning) has been a godsend for a fattie waddling pregnant lady like me.

    I also listened to the Qur’anic chapter called ‘Maryam’ today, as I have been doing everyday, recited by the beautiful voice of Mishary Alafasy. So soothing to listen to. Almost eased away the pain of the tax return.

    Tomorrow’s tasks: finish the boring admin, see the midwife, and start getting the house ready for baby. Before we know it we’ll be in my last week. What a journey.

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  • Ten days and counting

    The official countdown to D-day (or should that be ‘b-day’?) has started, and I just have ten days to go.  I definitely don’t feel ready. But as someone pointed out to me over the weekend “you’ve had nine months to prepare,so it’s not really a surprise is it?”

    The baby stuff is nearly ready.  The moses basket is prepped, the clothes are washed (and even ironed!) I’ve a cupboard full of nappies in a variety of sizes and brands. I’ve 300 wet wipes, 100 nappy sacks and six months worth of supply of the things you put in the nappy disposal bin to stop the dirty nappies from stinking up the place.

    The hospital bag 90% packed. The birth plan written (does anyone at the hospital actually read it?). All families have details of the hospital. Several phones, cameras and emergency contact mechanisms are prepared.

    And I’m not ready. Every time I go somewhere I think “next time I do this, there will be a baby, God willing.” Seems a very incomprehensible idea.

    A lovely lovely friend came over to take some ‘bump’ pictures over the weekend, so that’s a tick off the list too.

    What now? Admin. All that stuff that really ought to be done, otherwise will cause problems. You know who you are Mr Inland Revenue. Boo to you.

    And? Writing, writing, writing as much as possible for work.

    And then? Have been nesting for some weeks now, but still have the irrepressible urge to continue tidying/organising/cleaning.

    Only ten days left? Crikey. You all need to start praying for me! (and the little one of course)

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