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.