Tuesday, August 31, 2010

At Length

21 Ramadhan 1431

The lights twinkling away on our balcony are a reminder, as if I really needed one, that we have entered the final phase of this month of fasting. And in relation to the days left I realise just how right the length of the fast is. Long enough to be a genuine test - we've only nine days left but 'only' nine days is plenty of time - yet not so long as to be impossible to wrap one's head around.

In relation to the time spent fasting I can't help but think of an interview with a young lady who was involved in the Youth Olympic Games held here earlier in the month. She had nobly and generously fasted for a day in a show of solidarity with the fasting Muslim competitors and spoke rather touchingly of her experience on camera. What she emphasised was that, whilst she was now returning to business as usual, the actual fast was going to continue a lot longer. She translated this into the amount of a Muslim's life that was spent fasting in a manner that almost awe-struck.

She seemed to me both right and wrong. What she, understandably, failed to realise was that in fasting for a day for the first time she had done, in physical terms, the hardest part. It's difficult to comprehend the degree of adjustment that sets in after that experience. The body seems to learn things about itself of itself. (An interesting point for TOKers to toy with.) The fast becomes almost (though never completely) routine after a time, in simple physical terms. In that sense her admiration was somewhat misplaced. Yet it is the sheer doggedness of those fasting day after day that does impress, if one allows it to, even regarding oneself. (Balancing this is the inevitable sense of failure regarding those aspects of the fast that are not strictly physical. Never mind: the striving is all.)

Perhaps I should add here that I'm talking only of the obligatory fast. There are lots of opportunities to fast on other occasions. And those who take them fill me with a sense of grateful awe.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Losing It

20 Ramadhan 1431

I'm wary of making the assumption that one year's experience of fasting in Ramadhan will simply follow the pattern established in previous years. Yes, there are similarities, but it's the sometimes subtle differences from one year to the next that make each experience fresh and oddly unexpected. But one pattern I've noticed that has become established over the last five to six years, which seems to be repeating itself this year, is that of unexpected weight loss. This is not in any sense a diet, and I eat very well after sunset - you can trust me on that. But a check on the scales just now tells me there is at this time less of me than there has been since I was seventeen years old.

And, usually, the loss becomes really pronounced over the last ten days. So it will interesting to see if I simply shrivel away. Of course that will be an excellent excuse, if one were needed, for munching fair-sized quantities of the missus's highly munchable biscuits post-Raya.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cultivating One's Garden

19 Ramadhan 1431

My reading for the holy month is on target, I'm pleased to say. Yesterday I finished Seyyed Hossein Nasr's The Garden of Truth, quite a sobering read after Tariq Ramadan's sometimes rhapsodic meditations on the life of the Prophet - peace be upon him - and Gai Eaton's engaging polemic. Having said that, the implications of much of what Nasr has to say about the Sufi understanding of life, the universe and everything are a good deal less than sobering, taking one into some potentially dizzying territory once the old mind gets wrapped around them.

The ultimate dizzying experience is pretty much a guarantee of any reading of the Holy Qur'an in any translation, or, I should say interpretation, the text being seen by Muslims as essentially untranslatable. Arberry's version, which I'm reading in an old World Classics paperback, is a good example of both its dizzying-ness and resistance to conventional translation. It's taken me quite a time to really get going on the reading. Normally I can complete a reading in around fifteen days, but that's of versions with which I am broadly familiar. The Arberry has had the effect of 'making strange' my reading, usefully so.

And I'm finding another kind of strangeness in the last of the books on my list which I started on today. This is a translation of the section of Ibn Al-'Arabi's Meccan Revelations given over to a discussion of fasting. In places I think there are mistakes in the printing, the grammar seeming definitely out, but it's hard to say as the translator, one Aisha Bewley, seems to have gone for something very literal. Anyway the result is an occasionally knottily puzzling wrinkling of the old brow. Not a bad way to keep oneself active when the great temptation is to doze one's way through the days.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Gathering Pace

18 Ramadhan 1431

The curtains have disappeared from the front room windows. The sofa sits naked, minus its covers. And biscuit trays line the table. The missus is cleaning everything in sight and even I helped out with a spot of vacuuming today.

It's not exactly celebration in the air, but the promise thereof. The month's most explicit, and simple, reward. And wholly welcome.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Gracious Goodness

17 Ramadhan 1431

I was just finishing the maghrib prayer when the doorbell rang. Noi went to answer. It was one of the people who live on the floor above ours. She had found Noi's wallet lying on the shoe rack outside the apartment and was returning it. Noi hadn't realised she'd left it outside when coming back from doing some shopping in the late afternoon. Inside was a fair amount of cash and all sorts of important cards.

This put me in mind of a time I lost my wallet. I left it in the back of a taxi coming home one evening - I presume before we had a car. I realised I'd dropped it as the taxi sped away, but too late to stop the car, and assumed that would be the last I saw of it. A couple of days later the police contacted me to tell me the taxi-driver had handed in the wallet, intact, and all I needed to do was collect it.

It's terribly, sadly easy to recognise human folly and wickedness. But the far more obvious fact, one I'm sometimes inclined to overlook, is the casual, straightforward goodness of so many, if not most people. This is what makes us interesting and remarkable - at our best: the kindness of strangers.

The missus and I are deeply thankful for it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Further Sustenance

16 Ramadhan 1431

Felt in need of real sustenance whilst at work. Went looking. Found plenty.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


15 Ramadhan 1431

I'm sadly incapable of not counting the days to the end of the month of months. It's fifteen to go, and fifteen gone. And I seem to have been fasting a lot longer, though the time has passed so quickly.

When it comes to Eid I shall feel odd eating during the day again. And I shall miss the fast, even though I'm counting down the days, the best of days.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Staying Awake

14 Ramadhan 1431

It was early in the afternoon and I was sitting on one of the walkways at work, in a spot where I've never sat before. Normally there are no chairs there. Today there was a single, welcoming plastic chair, welcoming, that is, to a man who was on his way to a lesson a bit earlier than necessary and felt the need of a quick sit down.

From that position I was able to look out at a splendid amount of greenery - splendid enough to be hypnotic in its effect. The quick sit down could have lasted a long, long time had I allowed it. But no, I manfully pressed on to deliver my lesson.

The odd thing is this: in those couple of minutes when I could have easily have lost myself in my drowsy appreciation of what Mother Nature was up to in the middle of our busy school I was never more awake.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Staying Hungry

13 Ramadhan 1431

I can't say that hunger has ever been much of a problem for me in fasting from the time I began, around a decade and a half ago. But I do remember eating with great enthusiasm - okay, greed, to be honest - once it was time to break the fast. I still feel a measure of enthusiasm these days, but it's easy to restrain it, and I can't recall the last time I overdid it in the evening enough to feel some of the effects the next day. So fasting has never been that difficult for me in terms of the problem of hunger.

I'm apt to think of this in rather self-righteous terms, assuming a kind of superiority on these grounds. But it usefully occurred to me earlier today that actually I've got it the wrong way round. If I'd have had to fast as a child or a teenager, dealing with hunger would have been a big problem. In those days simply skipping dinner (the Manchester word for lunch) would have been a big event. And what dinners they were! When I was working at Rotunda aged seventeen the works canteen provided a huge plateful and it was hardly enough to satisfy.

So it doesn't take much imagination to appreciate the real difficulties Muslim youngsters must face in dealing with days of deep longing for those satisfying heaps of grub that provide the necessary fuel for young bodies. And they get on with this, in my experience at least, with nary a word of complaint.

The oddly counter-intuitive point in all this is that somehow the challenge the fast poses does ennoble as well as enable. Nobility, of course, is sadly out of fashion these days (a point Gai Eaton develops with depth and supreme vigour in Reflections on Islam) but it doesn't alter the fact that there's real nobility in the sacrifices these youngsters are making on a daily basis.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


12 Ramadhan 1431

The fast is not so difficult when there's so much available to sustain the mind throughout the day and the body once sunset has arrived. The pictures above display a little of such sustenance encountered over the last few days. The books represent the spoils of a trip yesterday to Kinokuniya in the company of Fifi and Fafa to unload the book tokens that came my way for conducting a highly enjoyable workshop at a recent Literature Seminar. (I'd have done it for free, but don't tell the Ministry that.) And the baked potato was the highlight of a relaxing Friday evening, to live no more, except in memory.

Mind you, I won't be embarking on the books, the ones for me, that is, (which sadly don't include titles like The Diary of Amos Lee - Girls, Guts and Glory, in case you were wondering) until I've completed the Islamic-themed material set aside for Ramadhan. Which means that the likes of the American Library edition of four Philip K. Dick novels of the sixties will remain a rather wonderful temptation for now.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


11 Ramadhan 1431

Finished Gai Eaton's Remembering God: Reflections on Islam yesterday. As with his Islam and the Destiny of Man I found myself reading at high speed with a curious sense of recognition of how many of his ideas chime with my own (though far better expressed and far more clearly thought through.) And also at times an uneasy feeling that I didn't quite see eye to eye with every conclusion drawn. There's a bit about gun control in the States that made me decidedly queasy - Mr Eaton being, as far as I can tell, dead against it.

There's something of the rugged individualist about the writer that's entirely endearing. I suspect he's politically conservative in a way that is on the wrong side of the fence from myself, yet it's the kind of conservatism for which I cannot help but have an enormous soft spot, that of the true libertarian.

I'm left thinking that, as with Islam and the Destiny of Man, I've just got to read the book again and sort out just what affect it's had on me, because affect it certainly has had.

Friday, August 20, 2010


10 Ramadhan 1431

Around 8.20 this morning I found I really, really, really had to have a cup of tea in the school's SAC. By 8.25 the yearning had gone, leaving hardly a trace. The memory of it remained, but that's not the same thing as the feeling itself. I think I know what gave rise to the sudden onset of this desire. For the first time this week I'd found myself at work with a half hour genuinely to spare - no urgent task pressing upon me - and that's the time to enjoy a zen-like moment over the cup that cheers. Except I couldn't. This is the sort of thing that can happen in fasting month, which means life always has the potential to be interesting.

Actually this was by no means the worst manifestation of the monkey mind. So far I've not had any of those awful moments when I think I'm genuinely entitled to a drink and I'm almost on my way to get one when realisation dawns. I've got a feeling there may be one or two of those next week before I ascend to full control of the fast - at the point when new habits and expectations have driven out the old.

Thinking back on my little flurry of illicit desire I take note of two things. The first is that in the light of the relative ease with which I mastered the feeling, I'm brought to realise how trivial, strangely fragile, so many of my yearnings are. The second involves recognition of what a wonderful thing drinking a cup of tea in SAC is.

Now if I could just hold those thoughts in some kind of balance I can imagine the onset of a variety of wisdom.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


9 Ramadhan 1431

Once we have been emptied we understand what it is to be full.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Salad Days

8 Ramadhan 1431

It's worth fasting to be able to indulge in the missus's grub at the end of it all. Some evidence above.

Definitely our salad days - though I hope my judgment is less green than it was wont to be.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Testing Times

7 Ramadhan 1431

Most people think that the great tests of patience in this holy month are hunger and thirst. This is not so. I discovered today that the greatest test of all is trying to book airline tickets on-line. Don't try this unless you have ascended to a high level of self-mastery. I made the attempt in the last half-hour before breaking the fast and lived to regret it.

Who invented 'frequent flyer numbers' and why does one airline make them a necessary feature of booking seats when you don't have one? And how can your 'session' be 'expired' when you've only just got on to the site?

Monday, August 16, 2010


6 Ramadhan 1431

Later I'll be phoning Mum and we'll be booking the tickets to go back to see her in December. Things have not been good with her lately. She's been suffering from water retention which has led to her having one of her legs bandaged for quite some time, I think to prevent leaking. It's difficult to be sure what's going on at a distance. But one thing's for sure: she's been feeling generally very down and her general health has been deteriorating.

I've been phoning lately on pretty much a daily basis, usually to be told that things are very bad. I hope that being able to tell that to someone makes her feel a little better. Amazingly you can hear the effort she makes, with the little energy she has, to put a brave face on things and change the subject to how we are doing.

It was Noi who pointed out that we should go back. This wasn't in our original plans, and I suppose I was reluctant to see the obvious - that this was the only right thing to do. Thank goodness my wife has more sense than me.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


5 Ramadhan 1431

I finished Professor Ramadan's The Messenger this morning. The final pages were particularly moving.

One of the many things that the book does particularly well is to make clear sense of the increasingly complicated politics of the final years of the Prophet - peace be upon him. It does so by avoiding the nitty gritty detail and simply painting the broad picture. In the process it captures the absolute integrity of the Prophet's years of what I suppose we might call power, though this is power operating in a very different sense than the one we are used to.

This sense of Islam functioning in the real, messy world of men and women and their drives and desires is something I find extraordinary in the true sense of the word. This is why Muslims inevitably find themselves looking back to a model of human society and behaviour that they believe cannot be bettered. Yet it was real and, thus, the lessons we can learn from it give access to extraordinary possibilities.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Something Simple

4 Ramadhan 1431

Tariq Ramadan's sort of biography of the Prophet - peace be upon him - is proving to be perfect reading for the holy month. The Messenger gives a clear, in many ways simple account, but the meditations on the meanings of events - the book's subtitle is The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad - add an intriguing dimension. And it's not that these meditations are particularly complex. They have a strikingly noble simplicity that seems to almost mirror their subject.

This notion of simplicity is something that I've come to realise is central to Islam. Despite the sophistication of much Islamic thought and philosophy there's always an awareness of the need to maintain a sense of clarity at the heart of things: a simplicity that is both demanding and rewarding.

In that sense the fast is really quite simple - yet profound in its implications.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Something New

3 Ramadhan 1431

In the first three days of fasting time has been passing slowly. I've come to expect this over the years, but the texture of the experience still manages to surprise me. By the second half of the month something like normal service will have been resumed as the body and mind become habituated to the fast. At least, that's what I expect, but then part of the fascination of this experience is its unpredictability. So who knows?

Many esoteric traditions of thought lay stress on the idea of breaking from habit - awaking from sleep as it were. It seems to me that one of the benefits of the fast is just that: it's a kind of awaking to the world - sometimes a rather uncomfortable one. I suppose this is why it's initially so intense.

Remaining asleep would be so much easier - so comfortable. Which is why the temptation to do so is so dangerous.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

In Denial

2 Ramadhan 1431

Something I wrote early in Ramadhan some nine years ago in 1422: Not easy to establish a rhythm of denial. Some things don't change. I rather sensibly added, but good to face the challenge. And that too remains the case.

Sometimes, often, at this time of year I feel a strong sense of inadequacy at my lack of fibre. Even kids make the business of fasting look easier than I do. But then the sense of inadequacy is the whole point. It's not just being moved out of one's comfort zone; it's being left in the open with no such zone in sight.

Except it's not that bad, and there are many, too many, who face far, far worse. And it's a powerful experience being forced to appreciate that.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Starting Yet Again

1 Ramadhan 1431

One's body always seems to react with a kind of mild but distinct shock to the first day of fasting. It's being placed somewhere familiar yet strange, a place in which the usual rules are replaced by new codes of behaviour. Suddenly it's the body's weakness that is fore-grounded. All perspectives shift.

And this is just the beginning.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I'm feeling quite pleased with myself for finishing all the books I intended to finish before fasting month. (Starts tomorrow!) Indeed, I got a little extra in by way of reading Leon Garfield's The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris, still being on a bit of a roll from his Apprentices. Adelaide was the first of his novels I read and, possibly for that reason, remains my favourite. I remember being utterly flummoxed by how good the first pages were - how beautifully written and how funny - and thinking that what was classified as fiction for children might just have quite a bit to offer. This time round I see no reason to moderate my judgement in any respect.

I also emerged from another re-read, of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, with a sense of added appreciation, although I think he begins to run a little bit out of steam in the last hundred pages. Or perhaps it's just the ambition of the venture and the size of the numbers involved that sort of overwhelms. But the last chapter pulls everything together. Bryson's amusing yet melancholy sense of mankind's instinct for simple destruction therein makes for salutary reading.

And I found echoes of that in The Voyage of the Beagle. Darwin is a wonderful companion and extraordinarily enlightened for his time concerning judgements on matters of race, religion and nationality, but his casual attitude towards killing the creatures he observes (and observes with a degree of attention that suggests a deep sense of love) is bracing to say the least. At one point he biffs a fox over the head with a geological hammer in order to take it back to some museum to have it put on display having marvelled at the fact the beast was observing the human activity below it so closely it was unaware of the great naturalist's approach. Somewhat disturbing.

The icing on the cake of all this was reading the Collected Poems of Philip Larkin in sequence and getting a sense how individual favourites (so many!) fitted into the overall development of the poet. It's striking how each of the major books seems to improve on its predecessor, culminating in High Windows. I see a move from the abstract to the concrete as being the crucial factor in this development, though that oversimplifies a deceptively straightforward writer. Oddly though I can't say I share critics' almost uniformly high regard for the uncollected Aubade. Yes, on its own it's a fine piece, but coming to it at the end of the volume I couldn't heretically wonder if the fear of death bit hadn't become a bit overdone. I preferred the verse written for Charles Causley's birthday (which set me to thinking that a sequenced reading of Causley's own Collected might not be a bad idea post-Ramadhan.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

On And Off The Phone

I've spent a fair amount of my life without direct access to a telephone. I don't think we got a phone until we moved into the shop at Guide Lane, so that's the first eight years of my life taken care of. Access to a phone was extremely limited at university, though I'm not too sure if we (myself and the four other students I lived with) had one when we were in digs in my second and third years. I certainly didn't have one in the little room I occupied when I started teaching. And I can't picture the phone I assume I had at Ellerton Road when I was finally in a house of my own. I don't think phones loomed very large in my life.

When I came to Singapore I was taken aback at just how much of a necessity access to a phone was regarded as by all and sundry. Which is by way of a prelude to recording the fact that, once again, our phone line at Maison KL decided not to function, and I found that enormously irritating. We're now actively considering ways to bypass the system in terms of getting on the Internet and simply function using the array of handphones possessed by the missus.

Mind you, there's also something curiously comforting in being quite cut-off from the world. Sort of anti-social-networking, I suppose. I realised just how much of a hermit I can be when a chap in a workshop I one attended sagely pointed out that everyone feels the need to answer a ringing phone when I knew with a deep, dark certainty that my every instinct is to ignore the darn thing.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Small Success

I’m just going to do the prayer, I said to the missus just now. And, not for the first time, found myself reflecting upon the extent to which I find myself using expressions that mirror her own simply because they seem so entirely appropriate. The central form of Islamic prayer, the solat, the one performed five times a day at set times, is exactly that: a performance (in physical terms) , as opposed to something that one might simply say. And just what an energetic performance it is has been brought home to me over the last two weeks by my inability to do it properly.

This is the result of a decidedly iffy left knee. I don’t think this is in any way related to the sciatica I have to put up sometimes. Normally that runs down my right leg. In fact, the discomfort in my knee reminds me of the kind of injury I found myself carrying in the last couple of seasons in which I was still playing the beautiful game. I’ve got a lurking suspicion this has something to do with a shifting cartilage, if cartilage can be said to shift.

The sort of good news is, though, that I’ve just done the maghrib prayer at full throttle, as it were. (I’ve simply been sitting down through the prayers recently whilst my knee has been refusing to cooperate. This is, of course, allowed, but it has left me feeling irritatingly incomplete – which is foolish since it is, obviously, the quality of devotion that counts. But I can’t help being a fool.)

The bad news is that, even as I listen to the Call to Prayer sweeping across the taman for the final prayer of the day, I’m not sure I can repeat my little success.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Hardly pausing to take a breath we find ourselves loading up for the journey north, taking advantage of the long weekend for National Day - officially on Monday.

Which, in our case, begs the question, where is home? Wherever we take ourselves, I suppose. Everywhere and nowhere. Which suits me a treat.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ourselves As Others See

It's December 1834 and here's Charles Darwin being tremendously politically incorrect: These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make one self believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy: how much more reasonably the same question may be asked with respect to these barbarians! And Darwin was one of the most enlightened men of his time.

Which makes me wonder what those a century or so hence (assuming our species survives that long) will make of us and our blind spots - possibly our complete blindness.

It would be interesting to re-write the above encounter - Darwin and his companions heading to the shore of Wollaston Island, pulling alongside a canoe filled with six Fuegians - from the perspective of those from the Land of Fires.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


I'd completely forgotten that Professor Ramadan (author of the first book on my list for fasting month) found himself denied entry to the United States for a good (or bad) six years, on the grounds that he had made donations to charities with links to Hamas. (This from a nation some of whose citizens went a long way to funding the IRA in the 1970's!) The fact that he made the donations in the period before the US government itself was aware of the links between the charities and Hamas and was wholly unaware of such links was, somehow or other, not seen to be a reasonable point.

Fortunately the government of this little island clearly thinks it's a good idea to accept visitors who consistently support tolerance and understanding between religious faiths, which is why he was in these parts doing just that only recently.

But now I've recalled his checkered history let me reassure all from the land of the free that I'll take great care when reading the professor not to be unduly influenced by any radically extreme ideas about being a good Muslim that I come across. Just as I'm extra cautious when listening to Yusuf Islam (another doubtful donor) in case he slips something insidious in those suspiciously innocent lyrics about Peace Trains and the like.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Far From Listless

I've been thinking about what to read in the holy month of Ramadhan and have decided to repeat the experiment I carried out last fasting month of focusing on what one might term loosely Islamic-themed reading. With that in mind I set out last Saturday to acquire the necessary tomes from the rather funky Wardah Books at Kampong Glam. The result: a tasty pile of four attractive paperbacks that I'm keen to start on right away but from which I am manfully holding myself back. This is not, I hasten to add, out of some obsession about only reading such material in Ramadhan. No, it's simply that I still need to finish The Voyage of the Beagle, A Short History of Nearly Everything and Larkin's Collected Poems, which comprise my highly enjoyable current reading. I've been making slow progress with them, partly the result of being extremely busy at work, and partly because I'm savouring all three. (I read Bryson's Short History some four years back and found myself chortling away almost throughout. This time I'm trying to understand the science a bit more. And I'm very familiar with pretty much every Larkin poem from The Less Deceived onwards, but reading them in sequence feels oddly rewarding.) But now I feel it's time to push on, and the long weekend ahead (for National Day) should afford an opportunity to do just that.

The reading that's intended to follow that will encompass (insh' allah): The Messenger - The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad by Tariq Ramadan; The Garden of Truth by Seyyed Hossein Nasr; Remembering God - Reflections of Islam by Gai Eaton; and Ibn Al-Arabi's On The Mysteries of Fasting, translated by Aisha Bewley. Oh, and I'm intending a swiftish, non-stop reading of Arberry's translation of The Holy Qur'an, the one in Oxford World's Classics.

I've never quite understood why I get a kick out of listing things - but I do, so there you are.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Wired Up

Life keeps getting just that little bit more complicated. Our main phone line decided not to function after Saturday morning which meant we lost access to the Internet. That's now been restored, but we no longer have a telephone in the front room, where we really need it, and we've acquired more wires than we really care for and a Mio box which gives us television programmes we don't want to see having got quite enough channels already via the Starhub box, which is, thankfully, behaving itself at the moment. The Mio box, which now sits below the Starhub box, is a free gift for something I don't understand to do with a telephone and, it seems, we can't turn it down. We know this because that's what we tried to do and failed miserably.

Fortunately the deep simplicity of fasting month is just around the corner. In the course of it I'm hoping to get wired up to what really counts.