Saturday, 15 December 2012

My sharpened pencil

I'm taking part in an online exhibition called "Muslim Women's Arts & Voices," which is being organised by the San Francisco-based International Museum of Women and is set to launch in early 2013. Muslim women from around the world will be engaging in monthly workshops and discussions in different cities and contributing works of art/writing/poetry/photographs/video, etc, for the exhibition.

We had our first workshop in Sharjah, a city in the United Arab Emirates, earlier this week and I felt so enlivened and inspired by the richly diverse and talented women I met. We were asked to bring one object to represent our identity. I had jotted down some ideas on what I would like to say about myself -- as well as the object I chose which was, simply, a sharpened pencil -- prior to the workshop. Thought it would be relevant to share these here, too!

My name is Daliah Merzaban, I have Egyptian roots, I was born and raised in Canada and I’ve lived in the UAE for seven years working as a financial journalist, analyst and editor. In my current role, I’m an emerging markets editor at Bloomberg News covering finance in the Middle East and North Africa.

That’s my day job. But what I have become most passionate about in the past few years is uncovering the layers of my faith in God through Islamic spirituality, and I write about this journey on my blog, which I started almost two years ago, as well as for the Huffington Post.

For my object, I wasn’t very complex, I chose a pencil and the notepad that accompanies it. If I am to choose one thing that I have carried with me throughout my life it is this item: I’ve been a journalist since I was 17, and before that was always very interested in creative writing, poetry, short stories, from a very young age. So the written word is what I spend most of my very long hours in the office and my free time working with.

I also chose a pencil because before I truly embraced my Islam, I perceived faith as something I needed to enter into with my eyes closed, without rationale, analysis or intellect. To my surprise, as I have investigated Islamic teachings more thoroughly in the past three years, I realised that it was through the acquisition of knowledge and use of reason and logic that certainty of God’s existence becomes most palpable. For me, the pencil is a very simple representation of the acquisition of knowledge, which is a fundamental right for every human being.

In the Quran in Surah 96, God reveals to Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, a verse through the Angel Gabriel whereby he orders the Prophet to "Read!" Saying: “Your Lord is the Most-Bountiful One. Who taught by the pen. Taught man what he did not know.” I think these words underscore our responsibility as Muslims to acquiring knowledge to gain a more thorough understanding of our faith.

A pencil is not permanent, it needs to continue to be sharpened and it represents my understanding that I’m on a journey of discovery and I don’t have all the answers. I need to always keep an open mind, and a blank piece of paper in my notebook.

(Read about how studying Arabic reignited my love of pencils and the written word here)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The 40-day spiritual challenge

When I decided to get my spiritual routine on track more than two years ago, I did it in 40 days.

Drawing from the example of an acquaintance who was following a Sufi-inspired programme for attaining consistency in prayers, I decided that I wouldn’t miss any of the five daily prayers ordained by Islam for 40 days, or about six weeks. I wrote the start date on my BlackBerry’s digital calendar, and kept virtual track of my progress each day.

Under the challenge described to me by this individual, if you miss a prayer –because, for instance, you slept through the alarm and missed the pre-dawn prayer known as fajr, or the mid-afternoon asr prayer passed you by because of a long drawn-out business meeting – you have to start back at zero.

I was determined not to let that happen since, to my surprise, the prayers weren’t as tedious as I’d always imagined them to be. They were, rather, a much-welcomed, regularly timed respite from whatever pressures the day had in store for me. I was told that once one completed the 40 days, with the right intention, s/he would never willingly miss a prayer again.

Whoever devised that programme was perfectly right because, give or take a few days of sleeping through my alarm, I haven’t allowed a prayer to pass me by since June 2010, when I started the 40-day spiritual drill.

Courtesy Flickr
It’s difficult to describe just how, but reaching the milestone elevated me to a higher stage of spiritual understanding of my obligations toward our Creator. Life began to revolve around my prayer schedule, rather than a previous strategy of squeezing them in here and there when possible. I am now able to detach from even the most hectic of schedules for quiet prayers like clockwork every day.

During the 40-day prayer course, I read the Quran for the first time and recall being struck when I came upon a passage that described how Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, received the 10 commandments during a 40-day retreat on Mount Sinai.

That sparked my curiosity about the significance of 40-day spiritual workouts in the history of our faith. Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, too fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean Desert. The Last Prophet, Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, spent the same amount of time meditating in a cave on Mount Hira when he received, at the age of 40, his first Quranic revelation.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Moment of clarity

When endeavouring to explain to someone how I uncovered my spirituality, I usually say it happened quite suddenly, in a moment of clarity.

Throughout my childhood and young adult years, God remained in the background of my consciousness. I believed in Him, and performed some rituals of worship to express this belief. Yet He rarely crossed my mind during day-to-day life, and I felt it was more important to focus my attention on intellectual advancement through academic and professional avenues.

I held myself to an elevated standard in work and study, always getting high grades on exams and maintaining a diligent work ethic that opened many opportunities for advancement. I sought happiness through ties of family and friendship, and on a couple of occasions, came close to forging a sincere commitment in marriage.

However, as it turned out, life was full of all kinds of mishaps and disappointments. My professional success was overshadowed by office politics or ill-intentioned colleagues who managed to drain my enthusiasm. Love relationships that seemed to be headed for marriage would unravel due to dishonesty and lack of integrity. And family ties would be put to the test by financial and health difficulties. The belief in God lurking in the background of my life wasn’t sufficient to help me deal with what was flooding in its foreground. 

With my lack of attentiveness to the practice of faith, I was unable to understand why God constantly placed hurdles in my path and left me to wallow in despair. It was as I was passing through one of these hurdles – frustrated, anxious and impatient to discover an answer – that I came to that moment of crisp, unhindered, spiritual and intellectual clarity.

In the Quran, which I hadn’t read up to that point, there is a description of a veil over the eyes of those who aren’t receptive to God’s message, a barrier that makes it inconceivable for them to understand faith in the true sense. Only by seeking answers with an open mind can one overcome this barrier. God refers to a divine light that, when it shines on the heart, lifts the veil and illuminates a holistic understanding of belief in God and the purpose of life. 

In my moment of clarity, it was as though I was moved from the former state to the latter state, from the “depths of darkness into light.”

“He will provide for you a Light to help you walk; He will forgive you your past: for God is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Quran 57:28)

A break in the clouds, photo courtesy of Flickr
It happened one morning before dawn more than two years ago. Unable to sleep I sat in my living room trying to decipher how to cope with the latest predicament; trying to understand why I deserved it. In a moment of inspiration, I knew the answer. What I perceived as a disappointment was actually a blessing, for it prompted me to question my state of existence, preparing me to be more receptive to God’s message and mercy.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Finding Islam with no time to spare

Sometimes my job makes me feel like a programmed machine. Working as an editor in a high-paced news wire environment means that when I say I work 10 hours or more each day, I mean that I dedicate 600+ minutes every day toward tasks that demand uninterrupted concentration and precision. It can be draining and quite frankly, mind numbing.

I often envision what I would rather be doing because, while I do gain fulfilment from my work and the success I’ve achieved over the years, it isn’t my passion. Writing on this blog is the closest I’ve come to discovering what my passion is. In the past 19 months, this page has given me a platform to express my discoveries of what it means to be Muslim in my very typical, often repetitive and banal daily routine. I strive to write in a simple, accessible manner, using the skills for expression that I gained as a journalist. I always wish I had greater time to dedicate to it.

One of the main reasons why I’ve had to cut back on my blog entries this year is the incredibly hectic pace and long hours that my day job demands. This has left me with very little creative energy in the evenings and weekends, so I sometimes daydream about a time when I will be able to commit my days to writing about Islamic spirituality. I imagine devoting all of this energy toward writing books or short stories that would enrich both my faith and productive life.

In the midst of these thoughts and wishes, however, I sometimes stray from the truth: that the very sources of my inspiration are indeed the circumstances of my life here and now. It is, perhaps, because I scramble through most days for brief pockets of time to self reflect, that I am better able to describe how Islam is applicable within the real, modern-day struggle to strike a work-life balance.

I’m not writing from a bubble, I don’t have countless hours to reflect and pause each day, I don’t claim to be a scholar or an expert, nor am I secluded from the world. I am, in fact, a very hard-working professional who struggles to perform my best in the workplace, care for my family and maintain some close friendships. Being Muslim means I try my best to do all of these things with God at the centre of my consciousness at all times. So, when I open a feature article to edit tomorrow (Insha’Allah), I will call on Him first for guidance: “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.”

Islam, a state of mind where the worshipper lives in complete devotion to God, gives an order to, and an escape from, my daily toil that I appreciate. It’s a thread that weaves all of the chaos together and keeps me balanced through a combination of regular prayer, fasting, giving charity and continual remembrance and thankfulness of the Almighty.

My hectic days must never interfere with my prayer schedule, to the extent that a non-Muslim colleague will sometimes remark if I delay my 20-minute break for the noon prayer, duhr, that I should head down soon. Since I also pray the optional sunnah prayers, I rarely take a lunch break because it wouldn’t be feasible with the volume of work I have to do. Instead, I save another 10 to 15 minutes for the asr afternoon prayer. 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Al-Ghazali’s lessons on patience

 “Truly, God grants breezes in the days of your life. So place yourself in their way.”

I’ve been making my way through a few books that are part of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, a 40-part series regarded as one of the greatest works on Islamic spirituality, written by Islamic theologian-mystic Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali in the 11th and 12th centuries.
A few days ago, I started reading The Book of Patience and Thankfulness, hoping to benefit from Al-Ghazali’s gems of wisdom on how to bear burdens and grief with greater steadfastness and contentment. One can hardly pass 10 pages of Al-Ghazali’s words without being blown away by a precious jewel of insight that I am compelled to read and re-read several times in order to absorb its beauty and understand its applicability to my life.

Patience is considered to be half of faith according to Hadith, the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and grant him peace. I’ve found this to be true in my own spiritual journey of embracing Islam, which describes a state of mind where a believer strives to live in complete devotion to God by recognising and guiding daily activities around core principles. Aligning oneself with the divine enlivens a powerful spiritual balance that transcends circumstances, and makes natural activities of prayer, fasting, charity, remembrance of God and good deeds. Having faith in practice is not simply a belief, but an embodiment of a way of life. 

Attaining Islam for me has gone hand in hand with sharpening my patience, broadly describing the ability to maintain clarity and presence of mind in times of trial and consistently being thankful to God for the blessings He grants. This is no easy feat; I find the effort to attain patience to be a most difficult daily struggle. As humans, we’re often driven by our desire for success, love, wealth, praise, power, offspring, etc. When we desire a thing and it is not granted to us quickly, or is denied to us entirely, it can become a source of disappointment and despair.

It is at these times that honing our patience is most important. Al-Ghazali reminds us, by drawing on Quranic verses, Hadith and Biblical references, to place our trust in the Almighty and be content in times of trial, knowing “that the reward of those who endure patiently what befalls them is greater than the blessings of being spared a misfortune.”

I read the following excerpt last night and it has been whirling in my mind ever since because it reminded me that there is no time limit on patience.  There are certain blessings I pray each day for God to grant me, members of my family and friends. Some of these prayers have continued for months, if not years, in hopes that Allah, as God is referred to in Arabic, will bless a loved one relief from a disease, or a friend a new job after a long period of unemployment, or grant me a virtuous marriage.

“We do not know when God will make the means of sustenance easy,” writes Al-Ghazali. “We must empty the place (the heart) and wait for the descent of mercy at the appointed time. This is similar to preparing the earth, clearing it of weeds and sowing the seeds. And yet, all this will be to no avail without rain.

“The servant does not know when God will decree the means of rain, but he has confidence in the bounty of God and His mercy, as there has been no year without rain. So, in like manner, rarely will you pass a year, a month or a day without an attraction from God or one of His ‘breezes’. The servant must have a heart purified of the weeds of passion and he must sow the seeds of will (irada) and sincerity (ikhlas) and expose it to the blowing winds of mercy.”

I was moved by this excerpt and found it to be relevant because it reminded me, at a time I truly needed reminding, that I must trust God’s plan and have genuine faith in His benevolence. Only God knows what is good and right for us, and this includes knowing the right time for mercy to be granted. 

What is important is that we prepare ourselves for God’s mercy by strengthening our bond with Him and being sincerely content with the blessings He has ordained for us, as difficult as this may be with the multitude of distractions surrounding us. We should not, as it is so easy to do, become preoccupied with “worldly attachments and desires” and think ourselves self-sufficient. When we are driven by our desires for instant gratification, a veil shields us from true enlightenment and knowledge of God—the highest form of knowledge a human being can attain.

“All that you need is for desire to abate and the veils will lift, so that the lights of knowledge will shine forth from inside of the heart,” Al-Ghazali writes. “It is easier to draw water to the surface of the earth by digging canals than it is to bring it from a distant, lower place. As it is present in the heart yet forgotten through worldly preoccupations."

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The sweet traditions of Eid

The end of Ramadan is always bittersweet for me. I grow accustomed to the rhythm of the Islamic month of fasting – the slowdown in consumption and focus on prayer, empathy for the less fortunate, charity, gratitude, reflection and patience are all reinvigorating for the spirit. It’s a month I’ve participated in since my pre-teens and each year that I can remember, I’ve felt a tinge of disappointment on the final day, which always seems to arrive far quicker than I imagine it should.

This year I was on the verge of tears when the call to Maghrib prayer at sunset signalled the end of another meaningful Ramadan. As we enter Eid el-Fitr, the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, we’re meant to celebrate with our family and friends the conclusion of this auspicious month and express gratitude to the Almighty for our blessings.

Cultural traditions vary throughout the world but most countries will have special sweets, often prepared only during Eid, to help celebrate the occasion and give it a distinct flavour. 

This year, my sister and I are on our own so we thought we’d try to inspire our home with a bit of the fragrance of Eid by baking a couple of traditional Egyptian sweets, using recipes that my mom has followed for decades. Below are some photos of the rich, delicious desserts we baked today, including kahk, a rich cookie filled with a sticky mixture of ground nuts and honey, and ghorayiba, smooth butter cookies topped with almonds or cloves.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

10 Ways to Maintain Ramadan’s Spiritual Momentum

(This article was carried by the Huffington Post)

Many people identifying with the Islamic faith are aware of the unmistakable and inspiring spirit that characterises the month of Ramadan.

As we refrain from food and drink, which can become luxuries we unconsciously take for granted, greater time is spent in quiet concentration, reflection and prayer to God in an effort to de-clutter our minds and revitalise our faith. Since the entire month centres on expressions of worship, namely fasting, prayer, dispensing charity and better guiding our emotions, Ramadan offers a kind of spiritual reboot that helps us ‘force quit’ the numerous complications that muddle our minds. It invites Muslims to re-visit the source of their faith by sidelining various distractions and clearing up as much spiritual space as possible to nourish our relationship with the Almighty.

Islam is Arabic for Submission, or Complete Devotion, to God and can only be achieved through a human’s free will. It embodies a state of mind whereby consciousness of God, or Allah in Arabic, guides all of our actions. We integrate different acts of worship into everything we do, such that expressions of remembrance and gratitude to God become the goal of each activity. Submission places in a human’s grasp peace of mind. It offers a level of understanding that positions human experience within the greater design of existence; where all realities have divine input and purpose.

For most of my life, I was only anywhere near achieving this state of mind during the 30 days of the Holy Month of Ramadan. While I loved and believed in God, during the other 10 months of the Islamic year, my thoughts would turn to Him only at times of distress and I did very little to express gratitude.

A couple of years ago, I realised that my general avoidance of God was contradictory as it’s not possible to be partially faithful, so I endeavoured to nurture my bond with Him. In the process, I found the best way to achieve this was to carry aspects of Ramadan with me throughout the year.

During this auspicious month, we’re reminded of the tools to honour God throughout the year. Rather than reboot one time a year, consistent maintenance is good practice for the spirit and contributes to the productivity of our spiritual operating systems beyond Ramadan. Below I describe 10 ways I keep the spirit of Islam’s holiest month turned on all year long.

1) Praying on time, all the time
From the busier-than-usual prayer rooms and mosques, it is clear that Muslims spend more time praying during Ramadan than other times of the year. Regular prayer is the single-best way to continually renew my relationship with God, and keep consciousness of Him at the centre of my attention at all times. Islam ordainsfive prayers each day on believers, spanning from the crack of dawn until the dark of the night. Like everyone, I work and run errands, meet friends and family, cook, clean, shop and travel. But five times each day like clockwork I pull myself away from whatever activity I am doing to kneel in devotion to God in prayer. It is comforting to have this consistency in my life; it takes the sting out of a bad day and reminds me to be grateful on a good day.

2) Fasting regularly
The benefits of fasting regularly are applicable throughout the year, not only during Ramadan. The act of fasting for spiritual prowess makes us more conscious, not just of food habits but of how we think, behave, and interact through out the day. That consciousness of consumption encourages patience and carries through to how we communicate and handle our daily interactions and mishaps. I strive to fast from dawn to dusk at least one time each week on Mondays or Thursdays, a practice rooted in Prophetic teachings.
3) Giving generously
Other than zakat, an obligatory act of dedicating 2.5 percent of our assets each year to charity and often dispersed during Ramadan, I offer voluntary alms known as sadaqah, virtually every month. Charity is mentioned in lockstep with prayer throughout the Quran, which calls on believers to do both “regularly”. There are endless online charities and many people in need in our communities.  Giving to these causes privately and publicly is both a valuable practice in paying it forward and immensely rewarding on a personal level. Each time I give, I imagine that the wealth I am distributing first passes through the Hand of God. This helps me give with greater humility.
"Therefore do hold patience; a patience of beautiful contentment"
(Surah Al-Ma’arij (The ways of ascent), Holy Quran: 70:5)
4) Reading from the Book
During Ramadan, it is favourable to read Islam’s holy book from cover to cover. For the rest of the year, many of us may spend hours each week reading articles on politics, science, human rights or business, and peruse fiction and non-fiction books with fervour, while our copies of the Quran are left to gather dust. Translated as The Recitation in English, the Quran charts out the path individuals should take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the spectacles of modern life. These lessons that are always applicable so I try to read the Quran four times a year at least, which is feasible if I spend time quiet time reading it every few nights and on the weekends. Each time I read the holy book’s 114 chapters I take new and different points of wisdom from it.

5) Embracing family time
Ramadan draws families together as we meet for the meal to break the fast, known as Iftar, and gather in the early-morning hours for the pre-fasting meal Suhoor. Besides worshiping and loving God, Islam teaches that very little is more important than consistently acting toward ones parents with respect and warmth. There is a Hadith, or saying of the Last Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, that describes how ‘Heaven lies at the feet of your mother’. Well, my mother loves my foot massages, so I often joke that if Heaven lies there, imagine the reward I may get for massaging those feet. Remembering our bonds of kinship, and honouring them throughout the year in our unique ways, will always draw us nearer to God and gain His mercy.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Preventing spiritual flabbiness

(A version of this article was carried on Art Dubai's Ramadan blog series)

Last year, one of my most-thoughtful readers commented on a piece I had written about the spiritual benefits of incorporating fasting into my life throughout the year, rather than solely during the holy month of Ramadan. 

For the past two years, I’ve tried to fast at least one time a week on Mondays or Thursdays. This approach, which is rooted in Prophetic teachings, has helped me try to achieve equilibrium in my life. I fast exclusively for God as a symbol of my gratitude and appreciation. It is a practice that, when combined with regular prayer, giving charity and remembrance of God, nourishes my soul throughout the year.

Regular fasting also enables me to get ready for Ramadan, a rigorous month-long spiritual exercise that involves refraining from food and drink, spending more time in prayer and reflection, giving thanks, dispensing charity and being more aware of our actions, words, thoughts and deeds.

As my reader, Karen, eloquently pointed out, fasting during Ramadan has the potential to be a lot like taking part in a long-distance run that would be difficult to complete in good time if you haven’t put enough hours in training to adequately prepare for it.

“By fasting throughout the year, you are like a marathoner who is keeping up your base miles before the big event,” Karen wrote. “You are literally preventing spiritual flabbiness! No wonder it is so hard for people to fast just for that month. They have to be in training really, to do it justice.”

Karen’s insight inspired me throughout the past year more than she may be aware.

I often thought of her analogy in recent months, especially during tough, long days in the office when I considered breaking my fast as I craved a cup of coffee to get through the remainder of a hectic 10-plus hour shift. I often thought to myself, I have to be ready for the marathon and I can’t give in to what in the end were usually unnecessary cravings. I allowed patience, self-restraint and self-discipline to triumph, and by sunset I was always fulfilled and grateful to God that I had fasted.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

In loving memory

(A version of this article was carried by The Huffington Post) 

One of my favourite pastimes while visiting British Columbia during my summer holiday is taking morning strolls down the meandering gravel trail that stretches alongside the Fraser River situated about 10 minutes from our house in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, Canada.

A walk along the pathway in the early morning isn't particularly elaborate; its beauty is much more unassuming and steeped in nostalgia. The gravel path glides along an untrimmed shoreline of marshes, scattered clusters of wildflowers and trees both drooped and willowy. A backdrop of sounds combine the crunch of the gravel, singing birds, lapping waves, the occasional seaplane landing and the imbued silence and freshness of the open air. On the river’s edge, one may find a man sitting on one of the rocks or wooden logs resting against the slanted cliff of the waterbody, his fishing rod dunked into the freshwater in hopes of catching a Pacific salmon, trout or flounder. A family of ducks, meanwhile, may be gliding its way across the water nearby.

An elderly couple may be standing at the edge of the riverbank, performing tai chi as the water behind them stretches out into the Pacific Ocean in the distance. When the skies are clear, as they often are in July, it can be difficult to distinguish the horizon where the blue of the ocean ends and the sky begins. The couple will remain intently engaged in their martial art as residents pass by, alone or in pairs, jogging, walking or cycling across the multi-kilometre trail that stretches much of the length of the city. Almost everyone is ready to greet with a friendly ‘good morning’.
This winding ecological trail is evidently teeming with life, and yet across the length of it are reminders about death embedded on a sequence of wooden benches situated all along the pathway, overlooking the waterfront.

Positioned a few metres apart, the benches allow passersby to pause, relax and take in the serene surroundings -- and each one is adorned with a plaque dedicated to someone who has passed away. The tributes that engrave the plaques often begin with the phrase ‘In loving memory,’ with the name of the deceased and the years they were alive etched below the inscription.
A short dedication to commemorate the late person’s life will follow, sometimes including a unique message that only the person’s family members would be able to fully decipher and appreciate. The messages often contain universal reminders of how precious the time we spend with our loved ones is – and how we can never know when and how death will inevitably divide us.
I sat on one of these benches this week for a short break after a brisk several-kilometre walk, pausing before retracing my footsteps back home. My thoughts turned to my late father, God bless his soul; it will be two years since he passed away on the second day of the holy month of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, which begins this month. He often enjoyed sitting on these benches and I wondered if he had perhaps sat in the same spot several years before, gazing at the river as I was on that morning.

His death was sudden, leaving me no opportunity to change aspects of our relationship that were not entirely functional, or address snags in our communication that I had put off trying to rectify, expecting I would have years to do so. When he died, I sensed that all of his time in this world, the years leading up to the moment he was no longer accessible, was equal a millisecond – one that I could never retrieve.

 “Every soul is certain to taste death:
We test you all through the bad and the good, and to Us you will all return”
(Quran, 21:35)

We often shirk at reminders of death in our daily lives. We race through life as though we are racing down this trail and while we may see the benches, we rush past them, ignoring what is written on the plaques. Perhaps we regard the messages they hold as offering glimpses into someone else’s life, and although we may know our own mortality we do not truly apply this certainty to ourselves. That is, until someone dear to us dies.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The whole world in one place

Once again, I’ve travelled to what feels like the edge of the earth. From Dubai, my sister and I made the day-long trek to Canada’s West Coast, where my mom, older sister and nephews were waiting for a long-overdue reunion at the house we bought just over a decade ago.

While arduous, the flight from Dubai over Europe, across the Atlantic and through Northern Canada to Vancouver, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, does succeed at disconnecting me from my daily life in the Arabian Peninsula. With a time difference that literally spans night and day, I’m able to appreciate the holiday, far away from my hectic work schedule, that I will spend with those dearest to my heart.

On our first morning, which felt like night time due to the 11 hours of jet lag I'm trying to overcome, my two sisters – one older, one younger – and I were counting the countries we had collectively visited for work and pleasure trips so far this year. For the three of us, who spent most of our childhood years in North America and have travelled little for leisure, it was a surprisingly long list: Malaysia, Spain, Britain, Germany, France, Egypt, Singapore and South Africa.

My mom – who was heating some loaves and buns of her delicious homemade bread that she’d prepared in anticipation of our arrival – seemed entirely uninterested in our conversation. While she travels a great deal, her purpose in doing so is singular and always has been. She travels to bridge the distance between our family home in a Vancouver suburb, her daughters in the Arabian Gulf and her homeland, Egypt.

The thought of a leisure trip simply to explore a new land has never occurred to her. She hasn’t been to Europe, visited Latin America or traversed Asian cities, nor has she ever wanted to. For many years, much of the reason for this lack of travel was financial as she focused her attention on caring and saving for her daughters, reluctant to spend a spare dime on herself. But even now that money isn’t an issue, her desire to explore the world remains limited.

“God has made every place beautiful,” she often says. Her perspective is, I believe, guided by her unwavering faith in God. She knows with certainty that He will show her all that she is destined to see in this world and that she shouldn’t strive to become too consumed in accumulating possessions or spending large amounts of money on travelling to gratify her ego. “I have all I need when I am with you,” she says.

Travelling for pleasure is something new to me, as well. I took my first-ever non-work or family-related trip only two years ago. To celebrate my birthday, my younger sister and I travelled to Istanbul, Turkey, for four immensely enjoyable days. I previously hadn’t had the cash to spare for leisure trips, saving all of my holiday-time to visit family in North America.

Even now that I am able to afford to take these journeys, I find myself hesitating. While I do take pleasure in exploring new places, I'm inclined to view such trips are a privilege rather than a necessity. This year, I visited my dearest friends in Malaysia this year to attend a wedding, and took a short trip to Cairo for my birthday to witness the changes to my motherland brought about by last year’s popular uprising first hand.

But as I sit here in our family home – my nephews, mom, sisters and brother-in-law within a reachable distance for the next three weeks – I can see what my mom sees. 

The greatest contentment is not quantified in the number of new cities and countries we visit, but in realising the value of the places inhabited by those dearest to us. When our loved ones are near, we don’t need to be anywhere in particular to witness the beauty of the entire world in one place.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Art of the Streets

On my first visit to Cairo since last year’s popular uprising overthrew Hosni Mubarak following three decades of rule, I was inspired and moved, sometimes to tears, by the graffiti and public art that now decorate the city.

Campaign materials strewn across the city by key candidates in the country’s first free presidential election also took me aback. The last time I visited in September 2010, only photos of the long-time dictator, or his wife and heir-apparent, could be seen adorning Cairo’s streets.

Since the uprising that started in January 2011, Egyptians have reclaimed the streets from their oppressive rulers, and artists, both experts and amateurs, have painted on the walls of the grand Egyptian capital sketches capturing a plethora of opinions and emotions.

Some cry out against decades of military rule. Others capture the anguish endured by the mothers and families of youth killed during the 18-day revolt that left more than 800 people dead at the hands of Egyptian security forces.

Some capture the faces of martyrs in a form of timeless memorial. While stopping to behold public art along a street in Heliopolis, a friend and I ran into a gentlemen who lamented the unjust deaths of “youth, such as flowers," before he and my friend embraced and shed tears. The man expressed genuine anguish at the prospect that the voices of these youth would be lost if the presidential election victory went to a member of the previous regime. I saw similar sentiments expressed in graffiti near my polling station near the Pyramids.

There are works that express hope and immense scepticism for the country's political future on streets, such as Mohamed Mahmoud near Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo, where battles between unarmed civilians and security forces in January and February 2011 left hundreds dead. A sombre sensation came over me as I visited Tahrir and examined the graffiti along Mohamed Mahmoud on June 15, fulfilling a wish to visit heart of Egypt's uprising on my birthday.

An overwhelming expression of love for Egypt and patriotic spirit inspires much of the artwork I saw during my week-long visit to the Egyptian capital. The various displays of creativity brought to mind a line from the poignant song “Ya Beladi” (Oh My Country) that was dedicated to Egypt’s martyrs last year. In the song, a martyr sings:
 “They tell me, ‘Enter Paradise.’ 
 I say, ‘Paradise, is my country’.” 

While I've included a small sample of the public art here, it truly demands a visit to Cairo to fully grasp the magnitude of the revolutionary spirit that now fills the streets of this grand city.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The limits of unlimited communication

(A version of the article was carried by The Huffington Post)
I've been studying Arabic for almost two years now and have in that time rediscovered my love for pencils. The Arabic alphabet comprises a series of elegantly curved letters that are most attractively transmitted onto a sheet of paper when I use a freshly sharpened pencil. I find excitement and enjoyment when I endeavour to express thoughts on paper in Arabic, whether I’m writing a short story for an assignment or a short note to a friend or family member.
Perhaps because I exert more effort to find and compose the right words within the language, I sense that any note I write is infused with more heart than the language I use unconsciously. I’m always eager not to make grammatical errors, and yet even though I inevitably do, I’m satisfied with the beautiful cursive sentences I’ve scrolled onto the sheet of paper before me.

Making efforts to learn what is ultimately my mother tongue has caused me to reflect with both sadness and disappointment at how greatly my native English handwriting skills have deteriorated over the years. I predominately use computers and smart phones with predictive text to jot down any thought in English, so whenever I actually have to write something onto paper I’m appalled at how messy my handwriting has become. I type faster now in English than I’ll ever be able to write, a consequence of the fact that most of my daily correspondences are done using some form of technology.
Arabic homework, courtesy Flickr
Strictly speaking, technological advancements should improve our ability to communicate with each other. “Social-networking” tools such as Facebook or LinkedIn and instant message applications like WhatsApp, iMessage, BlackBerry Messenger and Skype are supposed to make communication easier and simpler. While they do in many instances – connecting people in different time zones and continents with virtually no effort at all – I sometimes sense interpersonal communication has deteriorated. The flavour of both oral and written communication, and our excitement and appreciation for it as a form of human connection, has dissolved into a series of screens, abbreviated words and buttons.

Messages and e-mails are rarely returned promptly, and when they are returned, the replies often lack equal courtesy. Phone calls are very often rushed and frosty. Even in person, we risk being aloof because our attention is periodically drawn away from the conversation to our iPhones, BlackBerrys, Androids and other animated "smart" devices.

The more we connect with the medium of communication, the less we connect with people on a personal level behind the screens or even across the table. In the workplace, I spend countless hours each day glued to a computer screen. While people may surround me, we rarely have a moment to pull our attention away from the multiple screens in front of us and engage in a conversation.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Free time well spent

For the first time in many many months, I woke up today, the second day of my weekend, and realised I had nothing pressing that needed to get done. My sister and I cleaned the apartment and bought groceries yesterday. I emerged from an intense six-day week at work that weighed heavily on my energy, and completed the last of three Arabic-language exams, having struggled to scrape together enough time since December to prepare for them.

So, with no studying to do or homework to complete until my next round of courses begins, no pressing errands to run, nor any plans to meet with friends, I suddenly found myself with a free day to exercise, read, write, sleep, cook, relax in front of the television, or whatever I felt like doing before another rigorous work week starts tomorrow. Free time is a valuable commodity that we often don’t have a lot of—or we fail to appreciate when we do.

One of the highlights of my trip to Malaysia earlier this month was an unexpected meeting with one of my friend’s eldest maternal uncles. My friend, his wife and I had just visited the beautiful Blue Mosque in Shah Alam for the afternoon prayer, Asr, and decided to stop by a small Chinese restaurant nearby for dessert before carrying on with sightseeing.  When we had almost finished the refreshing desserts that combined crushed ice, sago and milk with mango, watermelon and honeydew, my friend noticed his uncle had just taken a seat at a nearby table to order lunch. He rushed over to greet his uncle in the incredibly courteous, respectful manner that is part of Malay tradition. Visibly pleased by the coincidence, my friend invited his uncle to join us for a few minutes before we headed off.
His uncle was incredibly kind, evidently pious, spiritually aware and wise. He spoke with his nephew about new projects he was in the midst of executing and they discussed entrepreneurial ventures with enthusiasm. My friend praised his uncle’s continued drive and stamina. Then, his uncle turned his attention to the three of us and said something that left a profound impression on me about the importance of using our free time wisely and effectively.

He explained that the there are two great blessings God grants us during our lives that we should not neglect: health and free time. As practicing Muslims, humans who consciously surrender to the one Almighty God, it is a divine obligation for us to ensure that, when healthy, we use our free time effectively toward enriching our lives and our communities.

His wisdom, I would later discover, is drawn from Hadith, a collection of sayings of the Last Prophet, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), who is cited as having said: “There are two blessings which many people waste: health and free time.As with most Prophetic advice on how to live a fulfilled life, this wisdom is succinct, crystallising in a single sentence something that we may already be aware of but hadn’t really thought about or carefully applied in our lives.

My friends and I departed shortly afterward and, feeling enriched by our serendipitous rendezvous, I let the advice simmer in my mind. I hadn’t contemplated before just how rare those two elements, health and free time, are and together how important they can be to our spiritual routine. The moment sickness strikes us or someone dear to us falls ill, we become consumed by the treatments involved to reverse, relieve or rehabilitate ailments and our energy is quickly drained. Daily activities become impossible to carry out and we long for the health and schedule we had, perhaps, taken for granted.