Sunday, 21 July 2013

My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog

About four months ago I started photographing some of my favourite things in the Dubai, and neighbouring areas, where I’ve lived for the past eight years. I took snapshots of locally available food items, unique restaurants and cultural and social spaces that have become dear to me over the years and, in the end, have made this place feel like home. I planned to compile the photos into a blog, along with a short description of each of my choices, to give others a glimpse into some of the valuable little discoveries that have enlivened my daily experience living in the UAE.

I didn’t realise when I started the creative process that by the time I actually got around to putting this blog together, I would be less than 10 days away from leaving Dubai indefinitely. This project ended up being more for me than anyone else – a way of capturing some of the fleeting colours and flavours of my daily life that are easy to take for granted, but that I will miss dearly when I move away early next month.

The key reason it took me so long to write the blog, or any other for that matter, is that I’ve been channelling my energy and free time since late March into building my first-ever scrapbook. A dear colleague of mine left me with a book full of empty cardboard-coloured sheets before she moved to London in the spring, and suggested I make a scrapbook of my time in Dubai. An arts-and-crafts novice, I looked at the 60-odd blank pages with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and great enthusiasm. My mind started to whirl at random with the treasure chest of memories I could include in this book.

There were literally thousands of photos I’d taken over the years languishing in dormant files on my laptop and external hard drive, lost in an abyss of electronic memory, never to be printed or revisited. I immediately started sifting through the dozens of photo files to piece together a somewhat chronological tapestry of the past eight years. It was a daunting task. I must have visited the Digi Photo studio in Dubai Mall about 10 times and printed more than 250 photographs. Along with printed e-mails, letters, greeting cards and notes, business cards, tickets, logos, maps and other trinkets I’ve collected over the years, these pictures have since filled my Dubai scrapbook to the brim with a whirlwind of documented moments.

When I started my scrapbook in late March, I had no idea that within a month, I would also be planning a move to London to pursue a sudden opportunity within my company. The scrapbook I had started suddenly became much more meaningful and urgent. I endeavoured to complete it before I left, as a way of expressing gratitude and appreciation to the people, places and precious moments that have fundamentally moved me over the years. It’s now more than 90 percent complete, with just a couple of blank pages remaining to fill with those final moments that will round off this momentous chapter of my life.

Creating this book has been a labour of love that I’ve worked on quite obsessively in recent months, very often spending hours sitting with scissors, coloured paper, and double-sided tape as I diligently pieced together themed pages in a somewhat chronological order. As I flip through its pages now, my Dubai scrapbook provides an overview of the (four) jobs I’ve had since I moved to this city, the many colleagues I worked with, the business and leisure trips that I took, the precious friends I’ve made and the series of unforgettable experiences that will remain with me for years to come.

During the process of searching for material, I stumbled upon a letter I had written to God on my flight from Canada to Dubai in July 2005. I hadn’t seen that letter in almost eight years and I realised, quite miraculously, as I read the words that every wish and hope I had jotted down on that one-way trip, had since come true. That note is now tucked away in the front sleeve in my scrapbook, and serves as an unassuming introduction to the rich anthology of experiences that followed. I also dedicated a few pages to my late father, God bless his soul, who passed away three years ago, including a letter I wrote him after he passed away. His e-mails to me during my early years in Dubai, when he lived across the world in Vancouver, Canada, are dispersed throughout the book.

Now that my scrapbook project is near completion, and before I leave what has become a dear home for a new adventure in London, I thought I would finally take the time to share some of my favourite things in the UAE. I will hopefully have more time very soon to start writing about my evolving spiritual journey after a hiatus of many months. Sometimes along that journey it’s better to absorb and reflect than to emit.

15 of my favourite things in the UAE:

1) Marmum yogurt
I absolutely adore yogurt and one of my favourite things about Dubai is that it locally produces the best yogurt I have ever had. Hands down. I tried virtually every type of yogurt when I first moved to Dubai and Marmum was the clear winner very early on, boasting the perfect creamy consistency that I adore. It is especially good when combined with some honey and Muesli. I introduced Marmum yogurt to one of my closest friends a few years ago. Shortly afterward she admitted to buying giant tubs of the stuff and eating it like ice cream. I will definitely be missing that almost-daily dose of my favourite yogurt.

2) Modern Bakery
While we’re on the subject of food, I come to another of my favourite grocery-store picks. Living in the Middle East means that you will eat a good deal of pita bread and, after a process of trial and error, I always choose Modern Bakery variety brown and white pita loaves. The flavour is SO much better than all of the others, which tend to be too sweet an aftertaste for my palette. (The exception being the Carrefour bakery’s fresh, white pita bread, which is also amazingly good) A large brown Modern Bakery pita, heated on the stove top and eaten with the Al Marai variety of white cheese (in the blue package) and some black Syrian olives (from Union Coop) is a real treat.

3) Zabeel Park
Let’s take a (short) break from food and visit Zabeel Park. Long before the Dubai metro, this park in Bur Dubai offered one of the only bridges that enabled pedestrians to cross a busy Dubai highway. I often visited Zabeel for walks when I lived in Bur Dubai between 2005 and 2009, and enjoyed walking across the pedestrian bridge that connects to two sides of the park separated by the Sheikh Rashid highway. Since I hadn’t been to Zabeel in a few years, I went last week to capture a photo of the bridge, which proved to be an arduous task, particularly at 2 p.m. in mid-July. I admit it wasn’t as romantic as I remembered it. My sister and I were literally drenched in sweat and panting from (and cursing) the suffocating heat by the time we crossed it, and only managed to gather up enough energy for the return trip due to a miraculously cool breeze, some “accidental” walks into sprinklers, and a pretty tree with gorgeous white flowers.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

In her shoes

My piece for the International Museum of Women's Muslima exhibition was published today here. It was shortened slightly from the original, which I've included below.

In Her Shoes

I’ve been thinking about how she encouraged me to be myself.

There she was, a single mother of three, managing a family business that her late father had entrusted her with. She worked with such professionalism, poise and proficiency that the community of men surrounding her held her in high esteem. Known for her hard work and competence, she was also regarded as a symbol of compassion and devotion to God. A number of men, enamoured by her vitality and charm, attempted to court her. After two marriages left her widowed, she would consistently turn a cold shoulder to these suitors, not interested in forging another bond in matrimony.

Until, that is, she met him.

He entered her heart when she wasn’t expecting it could open again to enclose the intense sensations of love and admiration that were unexpectedly flourishing within her. There’s always one person, it seems, who has the potential to awaken feelings of affection and enliven our drab daily routines. She was 40, while he, at 25, was determined, trustworthy and beaming with the integrity, intellect and virtue she sought after but rarely encountered.

Inspired by her feelings of fondness, she decided to do what was most natural: she proposed marriage to this gentleman 15 years her junior. Taken aback and flattered, he enthusiastically accepted. What followed was a marriage teeming with mutual reverence, respect, love and support that brought four new lives into the world, all of them girls.

It was almost three years ago when I first came across this story – the story of Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.

At the time, I was beginning to uncover the layers of my faith in God that, for most of my life I’d allowed to remain dormant, buried in the background of my consciousness. My faith languished as I actively pursued a career in journalism and sought successes I deemed to be incompatible with the rigorous demands of spiritual development. Five daily prayers, regular fasting, remembrance through repeated supplications, and periodic acts of charity would be too difficult and impractical to incorporate into a modern lifestyle that revolved around long hours in the office, household chores and engagements with family and friends.

Or so I imagined.

As my spiritual radar became activated, the very expressions of faith I had long ignored nestled into my daily schedule seamlessly. Islam, which refers to a state of mind whereby one strives to live in complete devotion to God, or Allah in Arabic, was, I discovered, natural and easy. Aligning daily routines around acts of worship to God, rather than attempting to append spiritual activity here and there where convenient, became the only logical way for me to attain a consistent state of peace of mind.

Khadija taught me these lessons on devotion more than any other human being.  She became my benchmark. By any measure in today’s world, she would embody the modern successful woman I’ve sought to become. We would commend her for the ambition that motivated her success, and for her ability to delicately balance this with qualities of compassion and maternal tenderness. We would applaud her for being so confident and audacious to propose marriage to a much younger man.

“Her chastity, dignity and elegance were virtues widely known and talked about,” writes Resit Haylamaz in a succinct biography on Khadija’s life, which describes her pivotal role in the Prophet’s journey to discovering Islam. “In today’s terms, she would be called an international businesswoman; she had many people working for her in different countries—in the Roman and Persian Empires as well as the Gassasina, Hira and Damascus regions.”

We would admire, too, Khadija’s unwavering faith in the one Almighty God at a time when the prevailing mainstream pressures surrounding her rejected this belief.  She was the very first person in history to embrace Islam. When Muhammad, the last of a line of prophets including Abraham and Jesus, peace be upon them, received his first divine revelation, he returned home agitated and fearful. Seeking the comfort of his wife, he asked her to cover him with a blanket.

As she embraced him, Khadija advised Muhammad to “persevere and be steadfast.” “By Him in whose hand is my soul, I believe that you are the prophet of this nation,” she said, offering her spouse what a complementary partner should: encouragement and solace in times of trial.

During their 25-year marriage, Khadija and Muhammad endured enormous hardship as the predominant tribe in Mecca, where they lived, opposed the development of Islam. Muslims were persecuted, trade with them was forbidden and, eventually, Khadija was forced to leave the city of her birth along with other believers. The couple, who endured the death of two young sons, were exiled and compelled to live in hunger and poverty. Khadija could have forsaken her husband in favour of wealth and a life of comfort. She chose instead to remain steadfast in the face of cultural pressures to conform and, in the end, one of Mecca’s wealthiest women left the world, at 65, from a starving community in exile.

Her firm faith inspired my quest to orient my life around actions that would help me attain spiritual maturity. Khadija’s example also strengthened my resolve in the face of often-inflexible cultural distortions of Islam. As I acquainted myself with the mother of believers, the barriers that I imagined were hindering my path, particularly as I crossed the age of 30 without marriage, crumbled.

I grew up in a household of women. As circumstances placed a good deal of  financial responsibility on me from a relatively young age, I ventured out into the world on my own to earn a living and carve a slice of success by employing the skills of writing, editing, researching and critical thinking God had given me. Along the way, I haven’t yet forged a bond strong enough to lead to marriage. As I embraced Islam, I realised that I didn’t need to regard this as a failure. God, after all, times each milestone with a precision and perfection that we simply cannot comprehend.

The seemingly impossible quest of trying to balance financial responsibilities toward my family with the demands of Arab culture that dictated I should marry young suddenly became achievable. Rather than denounce my circumstances for not conforming with social norms, I needed to turn off the surrounding noise and focus on accepting the path God had chosen for me: one that was uniquely mine, just as Khadija’s was uniquely her’s.

By embracing my faith, I’ve discovered how to separate myself from the emphasis society places materialism, consumerism, success and sex appeal to achieving lasting happiness. I’ve learned how to involve God intimately in each daily activity, knowing as we’re informed in the Holy Quran, that He is closer to me than my jugular vein. That my soul, too, is in His hands.

There is an intrinsic spiritual equality in the pages of the Quran, which charts out the path individuals take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the facade of modern life. God gives each human soul regardless of gender the chance to attain salvation through acts of prayer, fasting, charity, patience and works of righteousness. The simple, equalising and inherently rationale premise of Islam underscores its appeal to many women, including myself.

In Khadija’s example, and with God’s guidance, I have found more liberty in submitting myself to God in Islam than any feminist ideology, job title, self-help or how-to book, or piece of clothing could ever collectively even come close to giving me. Each day as I pray, and when I fast, give charity, and strive to apply qualities of virtue and consistency to all of my personal and professional relationships, Khadija, may God be pleased with her, is nestled in my heart. For me, she symbolises our potential as women to break through the mould our societies strive to dictate, and find fulfilment and meaning in the uniquely tailored trail God has fashioned for each one of us.

Monday, 25 March 2013

My mother's sister

One of my fondest memories of my maternal auntie Sanaa, who passed away yesterday, was observing as she and mom embraced, giggled and gossiped as they sat together upon reuniting following a separation of several years. You couldn't interrupt their joy and intent focus on one another. It was as though I wasn't in the room as they sat on my aunt's bed holding hands and bursting into uproarious laughter, literally, every five minutes.

They shared stories and recounted events from years passed. They spoke as two souls who hadn't been apart for a second, let alone five or six years. Their laughs came from somewhere in the depths of their bodies that can only be touched and activated by one's sister. It was simply a beautiful and unfortunately rare site to see.

God's tests for my late aunt were often trying: an early divorce, a lifelong struggle with asthma, arthritis and breast cancer. She endured with faith and persevered, always turning to God for comfort. May Allah rest her soul in peace and grant her Heaven.

As my mom's elder sister returned to God-- the ultimate destination of us all-- I was once again reminded of how near, present and palpable death is. After losing my father, two paternal and two maternal uncles, as well as two aunts in the past few years, God bless their souls, I suppose the thought that my loved ones will pass away has become a central part of my consciousness. I wouldn't say it scares me, but it reminds me to honour the important people in my life, to spend as much time as possible with them, always realising that our moments together are precious and -- ultimately -- temporary.

When you leave me in the grave -  say goodbye
Remember a grave is only a curtain for the paradise behind
Excerpt from Jalaluddin Rumi’s poem “When I Die”

Saturday, 9 March 2013

One Life. Six Words.

I'm very excited to be taking part in a dynamic and unique online exhibition featuring Muslim women around the world. The International Museum of Women launched the exhibit, called Muslima: Muslim Women's Art and Voice, yesterday for International Women's Day. I wrote a special piece for the exhibition which will be featured in the coming weeks that I'm eager to share here!

As part of the process of putting together the exhibition, myself and other young Muslim women wrote six-word memoirs, keeping in mind the question: What does it mean to you to be a Muslim woman today?

The idea was inspired by a legend that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He responded with: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” SMITH magazine asked readers to submit their own six-word memoirs in 2006, and the trend has taken off since then.

The six words I chose were: "Adding, Subtracting, Finding Patience In Commotion"... Find out why by visiting my page on the Muslima website.

I would encourage you to browse through the site to learn more about the Muslima Ambassadors from Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and the United States, including myself, who got this project off the ground. You can see the Curatorial Statement from curator Samina Ali and view some amazing contributions from female artists, photographers, writers, musicians and poets. There will be new content rolled out over the coming weeks and months. Please also take time to join the "Speak up! Listen up!" campaign to speak out against negative stereotypes about Muslim women and encourage others to truly listen to our voices.

Much love for International Women's Day!

Friday, 1 February 2013

Advice from a tree

I had one of those weeks where I felt like I was grappling for a moment of peace and there wasn’t one free for the taking. Under the weather and yet working until 8 p.m. each night dealing with a flood of news – including the sombre and irritating headlines coming out of Egypt with the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 popular revolt – it was tough to find a tranquil moment to pause. 

Perhaps that’s why I’m having a tough time falling asleep tonight as I attempt to unwind for what I hope will be a rejuvenating weekend. Yet as I sit here sleepless, the labours and stress of the past five days have already faded, and what is sticking in my mind is the moment of calm that I did, indeed, find in the chaos.

During a 20-minute break the other day, I took a rare afternoon stroll around the complex of buildings near my office, passing by cafes and restaurants which were, as usual, teeming with professionals having lunch breaks or business meetings. With no appetite to mingle, I settled on a bench in the grassy field situated below the bustling bistros, a pretty palm tree by my side, to enjoy some pleasant afternoon sunshine.
As I looked at the tree, I recalled an e-mail I had received the day before from a colleague that was entitled, “Advice from a tree,” which had been making its rounds through social media channels. It included a simple-yet-beautiful list of counsels on what we can learn from trees, namely to:

Saturday, 19 January 2013

SubhanAllah moment

I love it when I have a SubhanAllah moment.

It’s one of those defining moments during which you witness a miracle of nature or are reacting to a turn of events that shows the inherent destiny of things. It reminds you of the perfection in all that God ordains, so much so that in the very instant it happens you say, SubhanAllah, meaning “Glorious is God”.

I had one of those moments today. I’ll try to recreate it but I’m certain I won’t really be able to capture its significance because, in the end, it was quite mundane occurrence.

My mom has this jeweller from whom she likes to buy ornaments – earrings, rings, bracelets – from time to time. A couple of years had passed when we last visited this jewellery shop in October. Nonetheless, when we walked in, the same young gentleman who had served us previously was there, and the shop was as it had been: warm and welcoming.

This time, the jeweller was married with a baby daughter, who lived with his wife at their home in India. He happily showed us a photo of his bundle of joy. My mom instantly felt comfortable with this gentleman and, while there are literally hundreds of other stores around town, she decided she wouldn’t like to shop for gold trinkets anywhere else.

Last weekend, my mom thought we should pay the jeweller another visit – this time for herself. While she is always helping my sisters and I find nice things for our wardrobes, mom rarely takes the time to choose items for herself. It was her turn. But alas, we arrived at the shop to find it had shut down.

It was quite disappointing. This world is full of places and people, but only a handful of them leave an impression on you and bring you comfort. My mom’s instant reaction was one of anxiousness. She wondered what happened to the jeweller, hoped that he had kept his job and not been let go and sent home.

A week passed, and this morning my mom asked me to give this gentleman a call on the mobile number included on the business card he had given me a few months ago. I did so promptly, only to find the phone switched off. He must have left the country, we deduced immediately. 

Our day carried on and later that afternoon, we found ourselves at a different mall across town that we rarely visit. My mom suggested I check with the information desk if the jewellery shop had a branch at this mall. Perhaps if we visited it, we could inquire about the fate of the employees in the other store and potentially locate this gentleman. Caught up with errands and grocery shopping, we didn’t make it to the information desk. That would have to wait for another day as it was getting late.