So why should I fast anyway?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/so-why-should-i-fast-anyway-1.1850796

dates iftar

The clock strikes four and I gulp down the water quickly. I hear the distant call of the Fajr (dawn) prayer and realise that for the next 15 hours, I can neither eat nor drink anything. I think warily of the fact that the girls have school almost half this Ramadan and pick-ups must be braved in the searing heat. It’s not the food I mind giving up, I say grudgingly to myself, it’s the water and the caffeine — and the sleep that gets interrupted when I wake up to eat the pre-dawn meal. I’m a grouch early in the morning and the idea of not being able to get a long lie-in irks me.

“Why must I fast anyway?” I ask myself in a moment of restless, bleary-eyed grumpiness. There’s a voice inside me that tells me to come to my senses, but another stronger voice pipes up, “Because everyone fasts during Ramadan”. I complete the Fajr prayer lazily and throw dirty looks at the clock that just doesn’t seem to move on. As the day wears on, my mood thankfully improves, much to the relief of my family. The conscience is uncomfortably guilty as I question myself again, this time wide-awake and pleasant enough — why, at any rate, do we fast in Ramadan?

The obvious answer of course would be that because Allah commanded us in the Quran to do so. He also told us that He intends ease for us and not difficulty, and that those who are unable to fast due to reasons such as ill-health, travelling and child birth are exempt from doing so. There is also great reward in paradise for those who fast. Just that should be enough for someone of sound faith to want to fast, but I want to delve deeper into this question.

Let me, for starters, examine my relationship with God. When things are going well, I don’t really talk to Him much. I pray mechanically, almost like I just want to tick off a task in my day. But when the going gets tough, I earnestly talk to Him, in the darkness of the night and during the day when no one but Him understands my whispered pleas. When I feel inadequate, unable to do everything that’s expected of me, I reach out to Him and tell Him everything, safe in the knowledge that His mercy is greater than His wrath and that He, alone will not judge me.

One thing about people is that they’re quick to judge you. Say, a woman might be having an illicit affair and people would condemn her for being a two-faced hypocrite, but the only One who knows her full story and still has the door of mercy and forgiveness open for her is Allah. When you’re in the wrong — say things you dearly regret and actions that you’d give anything to eradicate — Allah is the One and only who understands you and still loves you and appreciates the fact that you came back and said sorry. Just the thought is emancipating.

Another beautiful thing about this relationship is that Allah knows me better than anyone, imperfections and all. He still loves me and listens to me every time I need to talk — no matter even if it is too trivial and I can be myself. He takes care of my requests, provided I ask like I really mean them. Even while I prayed and fasted like it was a chore, He continued to bless me with every passing day with gifts such as a functioning body, my family and countless other things.

I feel like a very selfish person — all I seem to care about is MY comfort, MY coffee and MY entertainment. I feel shallow, insincere — but one thing I do not feel is despair, because I know that the moment I reciprocate the love He shows me, Allah will give me another chance.

Outward signs of practising religion are indeed a part of it, but the actions are weightless if the conviction of faith isn’t behind them. I reflect upon the fact that I have this One friend that I have counted on in every moment of need and found Him to be true and incredibly caring and merciful. He continues to love me despite the fact that I mess up way too often. The more I know Him, the more thankful I am to Him and the more I want to show Him my love and devotion too. From hereon, I will fast because I want to, because He said so, because it is a privilege to be able to worship Him in the way He wants me to.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” published March 27, 2016

http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/what-doesn-t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger-1.1698786

negativepeople

Bullying is real. Bullying in schools, in the workplace and even in homes, is a reality that many of us go through. My 10-year-old has recently become the target of it in school and as I heard her recount her experiences, I felt like a little schoolgirl myself, all over again. I had that uncomfortable, familiar feeling of being hot in the face, feeling the redness creep up my cheeks as it consumed my insides and made them writhe, as though I wouldn’t be able to face anyone ever again. What my girl went through at school is a form of psychological abuse.

The bullying did not, (this time) come from her peers. It came from above — a teacher. The woman first developed a bond with my daughter, gave her extra responsibilities and then, gave her an unwarranted personality analysis (twice in two weeks), which explained exactly all that was supposedly wrong with my daughter’s mental make-up. That she was outspoken, over the top and didn’t feel “right”. That her bubbly nature was simply not what people were looking for and she would never be successful/appreciated in life because she was a little too “in your face”.

All this and more was said to her under the premise of “because I want to make your life better”. Understandably, she was shaken and began to cry and has not wanted to return to school since. My daughter is a sensitive, emotional girl and her self-esteem has taken a beating.

I could rage and storm and complain to the management and I feel like doing so, and may well complain at some stage. But on the other hand, I could give my daughter strategies to deal with this and prepare her for the big bad world. As our tete–a–tete went on, I noticed a hopeful and inquiring look in her eyes, as though she expected me to somehow make it all better. I’m just desperately trying to do this parenting thing right, and sometimes it’s more challenging than anything else in the world.

Finding internal strength

A response such as “that really hurt my feelings and I wish you wouldn’t speak to me like that” to a bullying superior at school or work may just backfire because research proves that responding to a bullying superior irks them, and they go about making your life more difficult than before.

Being extra nice to them does not work either and possibly the only thing that really helps is finding internal strength to still have confidence in yourself and to tell yourself that you are still good, and valuable and worthy, no matter what anyone else might think — and to distance yourself from the bully as much as possible.

There’s that nagging feeling at the back of your mind “what if everything she said was true? What if I really am a worthless person?” That’s when you realise that the negativity really did make an impression inside your head. I looked my little girl in the eyes and told her that she needed to understand and accept the fact that she had been emotionally abused, and that the abuser probably has too many skeletons in the closet herself.

We know nothing about the lives of people, about how much they may have on their plate at any given point of time, and what prompted them to commit actions that are cruel or passive-aggression. Unless we truly forgive them and detach ourselves mentally from the situation in a healthy way, we cannot move on. And moving on is essential for healing.

As is another thing — counting your blessings and remembering that there are so many precious things in life other than this one person and how he or she feels about you — and that they cannot get inside your head unless you allow them to. Connecting with yourself and God on a deeply spiritual level and finding that inner peace and satisfaction helps bring balance back to life.

I can’t help feeling like my daughter has had to grow up a little too soon over the past few weeks, but I’m sure there’s some good in it — however painful it may seem right now. I want my girls to grow up strong, independent women and I will leave the decision of responding to this teacher to my daughter.

All I want for her is to know that her parents and her family will stand by her no matter what and appreciate her for who she is, love her to bits and are very proud of her. I want her empowered with self-belief, backed by our love and appreciation. And to anyone out there who’s being bullied right now as we speak, let me tell you one thing. You’re wonderful.

On being the only one who doesn’t fast

Originally written for Gulf News: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/on-being-the-only-one-who-doesn-t-fast-1.1359213

Published July 2014

Like a lot of people who observe and celebrate Ramadan, I generally anticipate its arrival way before the month actually begins. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I plan my entire year around it, look forward to its arrival and feel saddened when it bids us farewell.

This attachment to the month could be for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that for me, on a personal level, Ramadan has always brought forth positivity. Be it major changes within my own mental makeup or minor ones on the bathroom scales, Ramadan has been, for me, a bringer of glad tidings. Not surprisingly, it has witnessed some of the best moments in my life. At the very essence of it all, there is of course, the act of fasting and in general an increase in worship, the kind that generates from the heart and brings lasting peace and tranquillity to it.

What then, am I to make of this particular Ramadan, when I am for medical reasons (pregnancy, to be specific) not able to fast? Before the month began, I was secretly happy that I wouldn’t have to brave the heat and discomfort during the long day from dawn to dusk without food and water, but when the moon was sighted and everyone around me began to fast, I felt — well, there has to be only one for it — deprived.

The blessed meal of suhour has a charm about it that has to be experienced to be understood. You eat what you can (sometimes half-asleep) and as soon as you realise it’s time, you stop eating and drinking for the sake of your Creator alone. And then when, hours later, after a demanding day, you take your first gulp of water at iftar, you just want to praise the Lord for the sheer pleasure it brings. You suddenly feel content and there’s no emotion in the world that can parallel that.

Vague sensation

I didn’t realise how much I would miss all that. I didn’t realise just how much fasting does for you on a spiritual level — indeed, this time it doesn’t even feel like it’s Ramadan. I have the vague sensation of something extremely precious flowing away without being able to catch it, taste it or experience it. It’s as though everyone around me is taking full advantage of something special while I am on the sidelines, observing them, twiddling my thumbs even as I waddle around the house, with my tummy entering every room a few seconds before I do!

One could of course argue that if I can’t fast, I can surely pray the night prayer, ortaraweeh — the prayer specific to the nights of Ramadan. Certainly, if I can get past my swollen feet and larger-than-life ankles, the (unlimited) restroom runs that just seem to be around the corner and that lovely, calming sensation of perpetual heartburn — and oh, did I mention the mood swings that even I can’t explain?

And it is not entirely easy to feel enthusiastic about standing in prayer for long hours at night, when you’ve played mom and homemaker for the better part of the day, slogging away resolutely, mustering up just about enough strength to carry along all of those extra pounds your body currently sports.

I do perhaps sound a little more frustrated (disappointed?) than I should be, because my situation brings with it a joy that is extremely precious and life-changing and truly makes everything worthwhile. As always, there is a strong case of looking at the glass half-full and finding ways of making this Ramadan wonderful and memorable too.

After all, doesn’t Allah look at your intentions and is it not the heart that is made content, regardless of whether you are able to fast or not? Isn’t it about connecting with your almighty on a profound spiritual level? Then I, for one, should know that exhausted, frustrated and inadequate as I feel, it takes only a moment of earnest seeking to find that which I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s just that one evasive tear that refuses to fall from my eye or that one suppressed supplication that hasn’t yet escaped my lips that will make this Ramadan even better than the last. Here’s hoping that I too, will be able to partake in the blessings of this special month and it won’t go by without transforming the negatives into positives and somehow bringing about yet another new beginning.

Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based freelancer.

The Spirit of Ramadan

 

A collage of some images in my gallery

Published today in Gulf News: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/the-spirit-of-ramadan-1.1058147

I can’t believe that we are halfway through Ramadan. Before the month of fasting began, I have to admit that I was a bit worried — what with the searing heat of Dubai and no food or drink for 15 hours! Then Ramadan began, and I was surprised when things began to feel relatively comfortable after the first few days.

As time passes it gets easier to ignore that big bottle of cold water every time you open the fridge, and it becomes less agonising to feed your little ones, who insist on eating chilled mangoes every few hours.

One thing, however, still remains difficult. Fasting was prescribed on us so that we may become better people, so that we become God-fearing individuals who improve upon their personalities in an important and spiritual way. Yes, our tummies are supposed to get a break too — but most of us tend to over-compensate at iftar when we come face to face with deep-fried golden brown samosas and their co-conspirators. However, the part about achieving a better spiritual state is the most challenging.

We abstain from giving in to our physical desires yet our hearts are just as burdened with ill-feeling as they were before. We still remember that high-school grudge, the friend who wronged or embarrassed us and the co-worker who always takes all the credit in front of the boss.

Dealing with envy

We all but seethe at the mention of certain specimens of mankind and yes — we eye yet others with that very debilitating thing called envy. Our hearts are still mired deep in resentment and we hold on to the mistakes of others and vow never to forgive them or forget what they did to us. We act as vitriol for own ill-feeling, and whether or not we consume food hardly matters.

When we introspect, we refuse to forgive our own selves too. Our hearts are hard, not just for the world but for our own selves. The bitterness overwhelms any positivity that the holy month brings — simply because we have become too accustomed to living life with a lot of unnecessary baggage.

As this month draws towards its end I hope to shed all that excess baggage, once and for all. I am not only referring to the excesses that reside peacefully around the waistline (someone hide the samosas at iftar!) but also to all the negativity that has all but become a part of me.

I want to let go of all those unpleasant memories that I subconsciously kindle inside my heart. It is to let go of that burning feeling of revenge I get every time I think of certain things — to forget about what so-and-so said behind my back or how I felt when such-and-such thing happened. Clean slate. I mean it.

In many ways this month is a celebration for Muslims around the world because the Quran was first revealed in this month. And what better way to celebrate than bring about a significant and much-needed positive change within my own mental make-up?

I already feel a lot lighter, and this has nothing to do with the bathroom scales which, it has to be said, remain as obstinate as ever.

Yes, it’s okay to be different!

 

A few days back I asked my readers what they thought about being one’s own person in a society that is all about conforming to the norms. I got interesting answers, and finally I thought about the issue myself. Here’s what I realized.

It’s far safer to conform, it’s so much less challenging to go with the flow. But some of us just aren’t made for that. I know I would be miserable if I stopped following my heart and my gut feelings. I know I’d never be satisfied if I wasn’t true with myself.

This is me. And I’m not about to change.

Is it okay to be me?

Weird title. I know.

I try not to say a lot personal stuff on the www, but sometimes you just gotta let it out.  I am someone who can be herself anywhere, everywhere. I am someone who doesn’t really lose a lot of sleep over what people will think. Like they type of woman who will do what she wants as long as she feels strongly about it.

I’m the type of person who would speak up in a group if she disagrees about something. Never really cared about ‘what people will say and think’. And believe me, they say and think all sorts of stuff about me. Sometimes to my face. And yet I continue to be me, ruffled only temporarily by a world full of people who judge not just me, but all who dare to be different, dare to be themselves in world governed by what society thinks, and by enforced conformity.

I don’t mean to say that one should simply reject everything society says, rather I mean that one should have the guts to follow one’s own thought, and believe in it — even if people think it’s crap.

Yet, lately I’ve been wondering – is it okay to be yourself in front of people? Is it okay to be someone who is straightforward and honest? Or do people judge you just too damn much and too soon?

Please share your thoughts. I’d love to know what you think.

Are we better off conforming to the ways of the world? Or better off being ourselves?

Pic detail: Traditional Pakistani shoes ‘Khussa’.

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