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.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Malaysia’s mosques

Putrajaya Mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia, May 2012
One of the highlights of my first trip to Malaysia this past week was visiting a number of the country’s beautifully designed and diverse mosques catering to the 60 percent of Malaysia’s 28 million people who are Muslim. Some of the mosques were Ottoman or Arabian influenced in their style, while others boasted traditional Malay architectural designs and still others were modern and incorporated contemporary blends of old and new. It is always a treat for me to go to mosques in the countries I visit because it reminds me how universal the message of Islam -- describing a state of mind where one surrenders or submits to the one Almighty God -- truly is.
Men praying in the Putrajaya Mosque
Many mosques in Malaysia have a very welcoming and communal ambience, which is quite unlike my typical experience with the mosques in the Gulf Arab region where I live. Apart from a few exceptions, Islamic places of worship in the Gulf do not, in my view, usually boast a welcoming atmosphere, particularly for women. So while visiting places like Malaysia and Turkey, I have enjoyed visiting and praying in as many mosques as possible.

I arrived in Malaysia on a Friday morning in May and almost immediately, the friends I was staying with and I attended Friday prayer at the Putrajaya mosque in Putrajaya, situated south of Kuala Lumpur and right next door to the Malaysian prime minister’s office. The dome of this rose-coloured, lake-side mosque made of granite comprises fabulous shades of pink. In addition to the prayer area, the mosque includes a courtyard and learning facilities, giving it an open and communal feel that welcomes the worshiper and visitor. As we approached the mosque, we came upon a group of Buddhist monks, snapping photos of the impressive structure as they left the premises.
Inside view of Putrajaya Mosque dome
Regular prayer is part of the routine for Malaysian Muslims, who take extended lunch breaks on Fridays to be able to attend the weekly communal prayer. It is customary for Malay Muslims to learn the Arabic language from a young age in order to be able to read from the Quran, or ‘The Recitation’ in English, which charts out the path individuals should take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the facade of modern life.

In the past, my friends told me that the Malay language was customarily written in Arabic script in newspapers and even today, when the use of English letters is common, many Malay signposts in the country use Arabic’s phonetic alphabet.

I had been looking forward to visiting Shah Alam, in the state of Selangor, to visit Masjid Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, also known as the Blue Mosque.
The Shah Alam mosque before sunset
This structure was built in the 1970s and 80s and my close friend’s parents, both architects, had worked closely on its design. The mosque’s blue and silver dome is adorned with decorative, hand-painted Islamic calligraphy. Outside the place of worship, vendors sell foods, clothing and other goods, while surrounding the mosque is a park, the Garden of Islamic Arts, adding to the mosque’s communal and welcoming ambience.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Remembering my quirky uncle

“What can you do when you live in a zoo?” 

My sister sent this phrase to me in a text message today, reminding me of a line one of my uncles would often say to make light of life’s ups and downs. Never take anything too seriously always seemed to be the philosophy which guided his life, for better or – as was often the case – for worse.

My sisters and I exchanged memories of our maternal uncle Adel throughout the afternoon after learning this morning that he had passed away (الله يرحمه/God rest his soul). It was a tough and emotional day coming to grips with the idea that I wouldn’t see my uncle again during this life.
Me nestled between two of my uncles in Cairo, Uncle Adel on the left
He was in many ways my last living link to my father, who died almost two years ago (الله يرحمه). My father and uncle Adel, the second-eldest of my mom’s male siblings, had become close friends during their days studying electrical engineering at Cairo University. In the early years after graduation and before they crossed 30, they worked together, travelled to places including Kuwait and Bombay, India--adventures I had heard little about growing up, and perhaps they will forever remain a mystery in the crevices of my late father and uncle's evaporated memories. Both had later decided simultaneously to emigrate to Canada in the late 1970s to complete Master’s studies and pursue their careers.

It was my father’s continual presence at his good friend’s home in Giza that led to his acquaintance with my mom and their eventual marriage.

My mom and uncle in 1960s Port Said, Egypt
Since my father and both of his brothers passed away in recent years, it was really Uncle Adel who kept those memories alive for me, which makes his passing more bitter and difficult. I associate Uncle Adel with so many stages in my life because, unlike all of my other uncles and aunts, he would visit us frequently at our home in Vancouver, Canada, often staying for prolonged periods of time.

I spent a good part of my late morning and early afternoon praying for my uncle with tear-filled eyes, talking to my mom and reading excerpts of the Holy Quran for his soul. Yet by later in the afternoon I found myself laughing as my sisters and we shared memories of Uncle Adel’s cheerful disposition.

I remembered how, while visiting us during my university years, he would never fail to wake up bright and early, often before anyone of us could flutter an eyelid, and start singing “You are so beautiful to me” in the shower quite loudly, before getting dressed and heading out for a stroll just after sunrise. This routine annoyed me to no end as I struggled to get enough sleep before heading to a morning lecture after spending a late night working on an essay or reading assignment.

Singing Elvis Presley’s classic “You Are Always on My Mind” was among my uncle’s other quirky customs. He would look into my eyes intently and pronounce in a very high, exaggerated pitch, “Maybe I”, before looking away and mumbling the rest of the line “didn’t love you quite often as I could have.” That was the only line of the song he knew, I think, and it sent me into hysterical laughter every time without fail.