Friday, 23 December 2011

Relief around the corner

(A version of this article was published by the Huffington Post)

Often when I get overwhelmed by circumstances in my life I imagine circling around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped emblem of Islam that stands in the centre court of the Great Mosque, Masjid Al Haram, in Mecca. Performing the short pilgrimage, known as umrah, involves as a first step walking seven times around the Kaaba, literally meaning “cube” to describe the approximate shape of the structure whose corners are positioned toward the four points of a compass.

I first visited the Kaaba during Ramadan three years ago. For my entire life, the stone edifice draped in an elaborate black-silk- and gold-embroidered cloth, or Kiswah, had seemed accessible only through images in books or the woven depictions of it on velvet prayer rugs. Muslims pray in the direction of the Kaaba regardless of where they are in the world. Always conscious of its importance, I couldn’t envisage seeing it before me and praying at its side.

The Kaaba during my first visit to Mecca in 2008
Standing in the hall of the Great Mosque, the Kaaba in immediate view for the first time, moved me to tears instantly. I arrived just after sunrise with my cousin and her son in earnest hopes we could get near enough to the Kaaba for me to lay my hands on this sanctuary that God had first instructed Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael, peace and blessings upon them, to erect in His honour. Muslims are drawn by the millions to Mecca in Ramadan to perform umrah, which carries the same excellence as the hajj pilgrammage if performed in the course of the month of fasting, according to Prophetic teachings.

The early-morning crowd was enormous and I worried it would be impossible to get near to the Kaaba. Yet we joined the mass trekking around it with relative ease, uttering phrases of appreciation to God, sending good wishes to Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, and asking God to answer some of our most-pressing prayers. During my first loop around the Kaaba I found myself standing close enough to touch it, and I placed my head on the surface in an awe-inspiring few moments, thankful God had ordained for me to be there.

But walking around the Kaaba wasn't always easy. Every so often our focus would be disrupted as we got caught in an indiscriminate crowd of people of all ages, nationalities and income levels. I was reminded then more than any point in my life that every human, regardless of social condition or gender, is equal before God. Each of us on the same journey, we are simply given different trials to test of our faith.

This congestion would generally form shortly before turning the eastern corner of the Kaaba where the sacred Black Stone is positioned. Participants tend to slow down to swarm around the celestial stone in hopes of touching or kissing it. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said the stone “descended from Paradise whiter than milk but the sins of the sons of Adam (human beings) made it black”. Even if you aren't waiting in the haphazard line-ups to touch the stone, it becomes difficult to move or catch a breath attempting to pass that corner.

It can be a tense experience both physically and mentally, giving us no choice other than to patiently focus entirely on our prayers and let the tightened crowd push us forward at its own pace. The obstruction would last for several minutes until all at once, as we passed the corner, the crowd would disperse and we would walk without difficulty again, eyes focused on the Kaaba's immaculate walls and the Quranic inscriptions embroidered in pure gold on the curtain enveloping it.

Over the course of going the rounds of the Kaaba, the same scenario – moving with ease and then getting caught in an inevitable jam – repeated itself several times with apparent exactitude. It struck me before I had finished the seven rounds that walking around the Kaaba was a lot like my journey through life up to that point. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Putting patience into practice

Egyptians queue to vote in parliamentary elections, Photo courtesy of Gloria Center
Watching footage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections last week gave me a well-timed lesson on patience and good manners. It was humbling to observe and read numerous reports showing people lined up by the thousands outside of voting stations to cast their ballots in Egypt’s first elections since the Jan. 25 uprising.

A considerable 62% of eligible voters participated in the election, many standing in line for six to eight hours or longer to cast their ballots. While I am usually patient in traffic jams, ticket and grocery line ups, I cannot recall ever having to queue that long for anything. It would surely nibble at my nerves, and yet many of Egypt’s lower-income citizens often get caught in long queues to perform basic tasks like buying bread or overpriced propane tanks.

The footage made me realise how impatient I can be at times with futile things, and how this impatience puts me at risk of speaking or reacting in an inconsiderate manner as I act swiftly without first reflecting on my choice of words.

Hours before watching footage of Egypt’s elections, I had an appointment to transfer my work visa to a new employer. I arrived slightly early to the meeting point, eager to finish the paperwork quickly to ensure I would be on time for a much-anticipated lunch gathering an hour and a half later with close friends, who were moving away the following day.

Then, five minutes before the scheduled appointment, someone from my previous employer’s office called to inform me that their representative was running late and he would arrive about an hour later than planned.

Since it was he who had initially decided on the appointment time, I impulsively snapped at the woman on the phone about how it was discourteous to call so soon before the appointment to reschedule, especially given that the rep from my new employer and I were there already. It irritated me that I had to re-organise my schedule due to someone else’s apparent negligence.

Yet, once the phone call had ended, I felt unsettled by how I had reacted. It troubled me that this woman and the representative I was about to meet would get the impression that I was unkind and abrupt. I had not even sought to find out why he would be late in order to put myself in his shoes before reacting. Instead of seeking to be understanding and tolerant, I was unsympathetic and impulsive.

Trying to live in a state of Islam, or submission to God, means that we should be mindful of God in every action we take. In the often narrow space between our judgement and reaction we can forget that God occupies the breath that connects these two acts. The Quran teaches us that God is closer to us than the jugular vein in our necks; He witnesses every word we say and every action we take.

I often try to imagine that I have an inbuilt filtration system to sift through my words before their heedless moment of departure, ensuring appropriate levels of consideration and fairness acceptable to God. This works much of the time, yet often, as with this phone call, I may hastily bypass this system to say something rashly—only to feel culpable moments later for uttering words soiled with some degree of insensitivity.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Banana cake with a nutella twist

I love bananas and I love Nutella and combining the two leads to sheer magic. While it is very difficult to imagine improving on Nutella, when you combine it with fresh cream, butter and icing sugar, and then spread this frosting atop a moist cake chock full of bananas and walnuts, the blend of flavours is simply mouth-watering.

For UAE National Day last Friday, December 2, I was invited to a barbeque hosted by a friend. I knew I wanted to bake a cake for the occasion but couldn’t decide which kind until I opened the freezer to find a handful of frozen brown bananas just waiting to be baked to perfection.

Banana cake tastes best when the bananas used in the recipe are really ripe: the browner the better. Whenever I have browning bananas left over that are too ripe to eat, I freeze them and then take them out to thaw for special occasions when a slice of banana-walnut cake is sure to please my guests, family, friends, colleagues—or sometimes just for me.

Banana-walnut cake

½ cup butter or margarine
¾ cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4-5 medium-sized, very ripe bananas
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon boiling water
½ cup chopped walnuts

Nutella butter-cream frosting
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups of icing sugar
2-3 tablespoons of fresh cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup of nutella