On Sensitivity: An Artist's Trust

Ever have one of those times when you meet someone for the first time, and you start talking as if you have known each other forever? Or as if you are picking up on a conversation you have been having for a long, long time?

A girl, drenched in sweat, exhausted from the strain of dancing her thoughts away, having had no sleep and minimal food for over forty hours, started telling me about a boy in her creative writing class whom she developed feelings for. Who crept into the crevices of her being. Who told her she was beautiful. And who—let’s just say, took her to a place where friends don’t go to. Afterwards, he told her that he was not looking for a relationship.

She did not explicitly address the pain of rejection. She described the strain she underwent in trying to “catch his light.” She described an emotional fog. She spoke of an inability to weep. She spoke of all this with an odd detachedness, as though listing an endless array of symptoms to a diagnostician.

I found myself asking her how his writing is. She told me that it’s brilliant, and that he displays a remarkable sensitivity to the world, to human nature.

It didn’t compute for me. “How is it that you are sensitive in your writing,” I asked, “but you are not sensitive about others’ feelings? That you don’t have kindness towards humanity?”

“He wasn’t that way with me,” she explained. “But he is that way with others. He didn’t have feelings for me, but if he does for someone else, and he is committed to them, he will be kind towards them, and he will be good. I know it.”

It still didn’t compute for me. He could very well be exploding with tenderness, generosity, and sensitivity when he was in a committed relationship. But it seems terribly strange that as she undergoes this kind of anguish, he is off the hook. In a world where there don’t seem to be any absolutes, she is forced to bear the part of his sensitivity that was a curse, while he bestows the world through a sensitivity that is wholesome. The unavoidable, looming fact is this: he is a source of immense pain to her. His writing may be brilliant and sensitive, but he displayed a blatant insensitivity to her feelings, which, to me, is squandering one’s gift.

Sensitivity, the ability to see nuance, is a gift, a sacred trust. It does not matter if this gift gets used for artistic purposes or not—that’s what it is. But artists are very susceptible to squandering this gift. Artists are sensitive to sights, sounds, and beauty, and their means of talking can be enticing for others.

I believe this intuition is entrusted to us to be used in a certain way. A devout Muslim artist, I feel, has an approach to their art that should reflect their approach to humanity. They may strike luck and make the most of this gift: perform heartwrenching spoken poetry, write bestsellers, and compose soul-stirring music. But if they are not compassionate towards humankind, not mindful of their behavior towards others, not according humans the adab they are due, I believe that the baraka in their work will gradually be diminished. Even if they are successful, I think they will, in some way, be taken into account for not being consistent, for not respecting the element of tawhid, of oneness, of consistency and beauty in all their actions.

A Muslim should be striving to do all things with equally pronounced perfection and beauty. They should not be smiling at the sales rep, then going home and speaking to their spouse in monosyllables. They should not be painting magnificent depictions of nature, yet paying no heed to the way they dress. They do not break a friend’s heart and then continue to write and love wholesomely.

If they do, then well, in my mind, it does not compute. It does not compute.

And Allah is the Judge, the Seer, the Knowledgeable, and Forgiver, of all things.

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On Beauty

So here is the thing about me and beauty: I’m either completely oblivious to it, or it sears me senseless.

I would have gone on for months without as much as giving anyone a second glance. Not just because the gaze should be lowered, but because I genuinely see nothing that is worthy of such a look.

Nor am I, generally speaking, particularly observant. I live in my head. Even if the first look at that gentleman sitting across from me on the subway gave me a hint of remarkably sculpted cheekbones, I’m not supposed to gape, right? Might as well not even bother with the first look. Back to thinking about how brie and apples make a stellar combination, or what in earth is in store for us in this season of “Dexter.”

So I’ll go on for months like this, until one day. One day, my gaze is frozen on someone–usually someone no one turns to look at a second time. A thousand alarm bells start ringing. People like this exist? What I’m seeing is so enchanting that I know it’s my mind, I know it’s the months of retreating inwardly that are causing me to act up.

That, of course, doesn’t make it any less real.

I stand there, and if I’m lucky enough to have a friend close by, she reminds me to close my mouth. She usually knows me well enough to not ask what on earth I am seeing in him. She knows I’ll just whips around and snap: “But how can you not see it?”

It’s really, really strange. Is the person really that beautiful? Am I just seeing what I want to see? Is a part of my mind so sick of ignoring men that it clings onto the first trace of beauty, of noor, that it sees on someone’s face?

It’s not just any beauty, mind you. It’s the kind of beauty that reminds one that Allah is beautiful, and He loves beauty. In its temporal manifestation, beauty can become a kind of teaser for the One who is Beautiful. The attraction to one with this peculiar, transcendent form of beauty is neither completely asexual or sexual in nature. For those forms of attraction are just those that help humanity function according to the way it has been creative.

Think about it. A sexualized beauty has a functional purpose: finding partners. Asexualized beauty helps cultivate tender feelings towards children or pets, making it less of a nuisance to tend to them. There’s an aesthetic sense of beauty that gives some guidance to decorators, designers, and craftspeople. But in terms of functionality, it pretty much ends there. No one’s going to get a promotion based on the way they see the swell of flesh under an eyebrow. (Hat tip to Philip Roth for making that the defining mark of Faunia’s beauty in in The Human Stain.) Unless you’re an artist or creative director who happens to have an audience that gets you, you have nothing to gain from noticing the way a scarf brushes a woman’s cheek, the scented stillness of a night in the woods. You just drink it in, and turn that into a remembrance, into dhikr.

Seeing flashes of human beauty–not just in a package consisting of sculpted cheekbones, flawless skin, and slender, tapered hands, but the overall perfect assembly of features that is a cause of wonder–continue to remind me of God’s beauty. When I was younger, I’d be wistful, a little pained, or even confused, by beauty.  But that is no longer so. Now I just smile inside. Wide. I understand that what I’m really longing for is Allah’s Beauty. I understand, in Tariq Ramadan’s words, that modesty is not about avoiding beauty, but dealing with it. Perhaps that dealing happens by acknowledging the source of that beauty, reminding ourselves of its source, and praising that Source. And willing and and anticipating and praying for a chance to see Him.

But I want to be even better than that. Next time, I hope I remember to say the same prayer the Prophet did: “Ya Allah, you have made your creation beautiful, so make my character beautiful.”

Ya Allah, Ya Al-Noor, Ya Al-Jameel, glory is to you. You have made your creation unbelievably beautiful. Make all of our characters beautiful as well.

On Duaas Coming True

Today is my younger sister’s 17th birthday. This young lady—who is different from me in a lot of ways but nowhere less awesome—has a little story attached to her existence.

For the first decade of my life I was the only daughter and a middle child. I had an older and a younger brother who tormented me to no end. I would weep and keep asking my mother if I could have a sister. She would tell me to pray for one. I don’t remember if I did (I had some foundational Islamic knowledge but didn’t get into practice until I was twelve or so) but man, I wanted that sister. I loved dolls, and I thought how wonderful it would be to have a live doll, a little being to look after and play with. (Nope, I wasn’t objectifying her at all!)

Imagine my thrill when my aunt approaches me one evening with a beaming face. She didn’t even have to tell me the news. I yelped. And then proceeded to have the most enriching experience of my life: helping look after and take care of my baby sister. So what if other kids were gossiping on the phone, going to parties, and shopping? For me, this is where it was at.

Now, when I am being affectionate towards my sister, I call her my duaa. On an occasion or two I have joked about how she wouldn’t be living this awesome life if I hadn’t wanted a sister so badly. But I don’t labor that point, because, well, that would be weird, even a bit Phraoesque.

One of my closest friends once said to me: “I created you out of my thoughts.”  That’s how I feel about the people who are closest to me, and the blessings that have been bestowed upon me. Allah (SWT) took care of me from the very beginning, and I know He continues to take care of me when the things I want come true, regardless of whether or not I explicitly pray for them. If that isn’t evidence of Allah’s mercy, I don’t know what is.

Eid Mubarak! And…Brass Crescent Wins!

I hope all those who celebrated Eid had one that was full of bounty and joy!

As you may have noted from the freshly-added badges to this blog, I have been graced with an incredible Eid gift: Brass Crescent awards in both the categories of best blog and best writer! I cannot thank enough all those who nominated and voted for me. I’m small potatoes: my stats haven’t been the kind that have advertisers flocking to my door. But the readers I do have are wonderful, thoughtful, and incredibly intelligent people. It has been a joy engaging with you and I am so grateful for your support. I wouldn’t trade you lot for the world.

Grace is from Allah alone. Indeed, He honors whom He wills and humbles whom He wills.

On Receiving

There was a time, back when I lived in the Gulf, when my mother and I were discussing the situation of a good family friend. (Here, I will call her “Safiya.”) She was approaching the age of thirty and had not found a suitable marriage partner, and her family was deeply distressed about the situation.

Her parents and mine were both soliciting the services of the same matchmaker. On one occasion, the matchmaker suggested a suitor for me who was ten years older than I was. She told us in a well-intentioned manner that we were the first ones she had approached for this match.

Normally I would not have blinked at such a prospect, but because I was ruminating over Safiya’s situation in those days, it struck me as terribly strange that the matchmaker would think of me first. So without thinking, the first thought I expressed to my mother was: “Why isn’t she asking Safiya’s parents?”

My mother was quiet, thrown off by my suggestion. Then she sat me down and patiently explained: “Sarah, don’t think of yourself in terms of other’s needs. You can’t compare your situation to Safiya’s, ever.” She pointed out that this had nothing to do with our not being concerned for her. Rather, when something like this presents itself, it has come our way for a reason, because we’re meant to at least consider it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t this reasoning applied to the situation at hand. There were no profound forces in operation here. I feel that, for whatever reason, the matchmaker was deliberately seeking younger wife for the suitor in question. My mother, however, reasoned that she could simply be enacting God’s will. (As far as my prospective suitors are concerned, she thinks everyone is going about enacting God’s will all the time. She has to. It’s the only way she can rationalize my still being single at a ripe old age of twenty-six.)

Now, some years after the incident, I have come to understand the wisdom in my mother’s words: when it comes to matters of fate, what others have or do not have could not matter less. That is why there is no room in Islam for jealousy. For the same reason, there is no room for pathological selflessness, either.  It makes no sense to seethe over what others have. It also makes no sense to give away half of one’s income, guilty that they were granted privileges that others were not.

So I find myself thinking of my mother’s words when I am overwhelmed by the opportunities and gifts that I am blessed with. I’m not the jealous sort, but I do veer towards extreme selflessness, a tendency that has probably cost me in many ways. When I am acknowledged in some manner, I automatically think of others who deserve more reward and recognition. One of the few occasions I become tongue-tied is when I am paid a compliment. Ridicule me all I want: I’m an English major, I’m used to it. Say something nice, and I will break into a cold sweat. The manual of Sarah has nothing to say about this.

I have rarely ever confronted the green-eyed monster. But when good comes my way, I must learn to breathe deeply: Alhamdulillah. Part of growing up, for me, is receiving with grace. Receiving without guilt.

More On Singlehood

When I feel constricted, suffocated by notions that a married woman is the only kind of woman who is worth being respected, being heard, I think of Precious Ramotswe. I think of her father. I think of what happened when a man who later turned out to be an abusive husband asked for his permission to marry her. I think of the very clear straightforward process Obed Ramotswe undertook:

He sat on his stool and looked up at her and said to her that she would never have to marry anybody she did not want to marry. Those days were over, long ago. Nor should she feel that she had to marry at all; a woman could be by herself these days—there were more and more women like that.

I do fantasize about love and marriage. I grew up with romantic notions of fairy-tale weddings and eternal love and marital bliss. I still believe in these possibilities and want them for myself very, very much.

At the same time, I also fantasize about a wise, elder figure like Ramotswe telling me that it’s okay to not settle.

It may sound incredibly absurd. But when you are part of a culture where the spinster woman is so deeply shamed, where it’s hard to rejoice in your lifestyle when society refuses to accord you respect, you need to embrace an alternate reality. You need to build new mental models for ways of being.

So from this first book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, it is Obed Ramotswe’s words that sustain me, along with Precious’ ambition, creativity, an uncluttered, independent life, with bright yellow curtains, bush tea, and chats with dear friends. These things remind me that contentment, peace, love and mercy can exist in forms beyond the sociocultural establishment I have been born into.

It is in passages like the one above, moments like these, that I am struck by just how much literature can be such a rahma, such a mercy.

On Mercy

It turned out that there was mercy, too, after all.

The taxi driver who drove me to the airport was a tall, strapping man who gave me a hearty salaam with a booming voice as he loaded my bag into the trunk. As we made our way onto the M25, he spoke in an endearingly lilted Cockney accent about his children and grandchildren, about his love of his job, about how much things have changed for those of the Pakistani diaspora living in Britain. I went from having the usual reluctance I have with people who are excessively friendly to letting my heart be opened, letting the warmth and friendship of a stranger pour in.

And before I knew it, I was telling him everything. He just seemed to know so much, and I had nothing to lose by telling him what was hurting me, so I did. He listened compassionately. He told me his own story, a story that mirrored mine so completely that I started tearing. I asked. And he explained matters to me, adding: “There was a time when people prayed for adversity so that they could be closer to Allah.”

In spite of the company, in spite of the so-rare feeling of being seen and heard, I felt more out of sorts than ever. Maybe because it was too intense, too much for me to take. As I paid him, he seemed to sense this, and he pulled me into a tight hug. Usually a person so wary of physical contact, I didn’t resist.  “It’ll be aright, love.” he said reassuringly. I nodded through my sobs.

Once he drove away, I continued to cry for a few more minutes, not caring who saw me or what they thought. But then I wiped my cheeks, took a deep breath, and started pulling my luggage towards the entrance of the London Heathrow terminal. And as I did so I had a strange sense of something I hadn’t felt since I was a child: that this was a scene in a novel. More than that, I felt that this was a fitting scene to end the novel, to finally finish off the never-ending narrative.

And it really did get better, later on.