Wednesday, July 31, 2013

An Early Start

22 Ramadhan 1434

One of the reasons I seem to have a lot more time on my hands in this month is the very early start to the working day involved. Basically once the prayer is done, and this follows immediately upon the azan, there's not much else to do except go to work, adding a clear fifty minutes to the day. And it's odd how productive that time seems to be when there's hardly anyone else around in the staffroom.

Unfortunately there's also a downside to this. I've reached the point when I'm beginning to feel a kind of drudgery in the passing of days - and this has little to do with fasting, and much to do with the loss of sleeping time. In fact, I suspect this is the reason for those moments of intense yet brief weariness which are apt to assail me, usually when I'm climbing a flight of stairs.

Of course this is not a problem at the weekend when the prospect of going back to bed and enjoying a couple of hours of shut-eye after the dawn prayer is beguiling, indeed, a kind of delight in itself. And on the odd occasions when I get back from work early enough to indulge in a deep nap the drudgery magically evaporates.

The azan for the dawn prayer tells us that Prayer is better than sleep - and it is. But there's still a lot to be said for sleep as a wonderful gift in itself.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Looking Inwards

21 Ramadhan 1434

Due to a slight change in our recent routines we've not been buying newspapers with any regularity. And for the last couple of days we haven't been watching telly in the living room as Starhub's set-box has decided not to function. (It took half an hour to get through to customer service to try and sort this out yesterday evening.)

As a result of the above I really have no idea what's happening in the bigger world out there - though I rather suspect it's more of the same. And just at the moment I don't really care. (Though I was a little disappointed the other day in the name chosen for the latest of the royal progeny. I was hoping for Stanley or Wayne or Darren. But it was not to be.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Not Really Final Countdown

20 Ramadhan 1434

Now entering the final third of fasting. Maintaining the fast has now become habitual and hardly feels like any kind of imposition, so I'm not entirely sure why I'm counting down the days. But I am, and I always do. A part of me has never quite grown up.

Noi has started biscuiting and tells me we're putting up our twinkling lights tomorrow. Yay!

Sunday, July 28, 2013


19 Ramadhan 1434


Evidence above of the deprivations of the month. Not exactly anything to complain about, eh?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Supersonic Youth

18 Ramadhan 1434

A packed day. Spent much of it with my drama guys, which is a good place to be - especially when they are given their heads and developing their own ideas. Over the years I've had to learn to relinquish my natural instinct to control almost everything going on on a stage. There remains a time when control is necessary, but today was not such an occasion, and I'm thankful for that.

And then it was home to a visit from Karen and Ian, accompanying us for the breaking of the fast. Ian is curious about everything, and rightly so, because everything is curious.

Time well spent.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Called To Prayer

17 Ramadhan 1434

Enjoyed a communal iftar this evening with Muslim friends and colleagues from school just outside the Sultan Mosque - the oldest and, I suppose, grandest in this Far Place. This is one of the few areas here in which the sound of the azan - and the prayers themselves - are allowed to carry into the open.The effect is powerfully soothing, I find, especially when the muezzin has such a fine voice. It's as if a blessing descends, sacralizing perfectly ordinary chatter and the on-going business of living. Suddenly the world seems balanced.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Delayed Gratification

16 Ramadhan 1434

In addition to my Islamic-themed reading I've been getting on with Old and New Poems, the Donald Hall collection I got around about this time last year. I was excited about reading it then, but at the same time I used the book tokens for my annual appearance at MOE's Literature Seminar to get quite a few poetry books and decided to move ahead with some of the others first. Finally arriving at the great American Poet Laureate I've been diligently reading the poems in the 'right' order.

It's been a slow process as I've found it wise to restrict myself to groups of three or four at a time, and I'm only halfway through now. I've been enjoying the sense of the poet's development as time progresses since the collection is organised chronologically. In fact, I get a distinct sense of Hall just getting better and better. The early stuff, from the late forties to fifties, is worthy enough, but somewhat opaque - hard work to read at times. Now I've reached the seventies and the first poem in there Gold is just that - pure poetic gold, exploding off the page. Crystalline clarity, real shivers down the spine time and absolutely worth waiting for, rather than encountering directly, out of context, as it were.

It's akin to the rich enjoyment experienced of quite 'ordinary' food and drink in this month of fasting. This evening, for example, I had quite a bit to do directly after breaking the fast and couldn't really eat and drink properly until after ten. Far from being a bother this seemed somehow a worthwhile thing to do. Perhaps we are in danger of forgetting that anything worthwhile is not just worth waiting for but somehow gains in worth as a result of waiting? 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Lay Down Your Weary Tune

15 Ramadhan 1434

There's a difference between being simply tired and being weary, and it isn't just one of degree. There's something oddly comforting in the extremity of weariness. Something natural, to be welcomed. As if you're on the verge of being able to lay a burden down.

Avoiding difficulties is no way to live.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Breath Of Fresh Air

14 Ramadhan 1434

We enjoyed the company of Paul & Joy's daughter Ella earlier today. She has just reached the end of a two month adventure in South East Asia and environs and is now on the way back to Manchester.

I envied her youth, her spirit, her sense of adventure - but most of all I envied the fact that she got to eat Noi's banana cake while I was still fasting.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Needful Things

13 Ramadhan 1434

At 10.30 I really, really, really needed a drink. Preferably a cup of tea, but a glass of water would suffice. I'd started the day with some heavy teaching and then had to sort out some urgent panicky admin stuff. A lot more heavy teaching, without respite until 3.00 in the afternoon was facing me. My throat was a mess. So if I didn't get that drink I needed I didn't know what would happen.

Of course, I didn't get the drink. Of course, nothing happened. The day went on and the crisis was soon forgotten.

And, in a way, I knew that would be the case at 10.30 because this wasn't a new experience. Just me, learning again, that there is very little that we truly need.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

In Common

12 Ramadhan 1434

Yesterday's fast was broken at Melaka, sort of. Actually, technically speaking, we broke the fast in the car with a little water from the bottle we usually carry, a few small bread rolls and a sprinkling of Pringles. As the azan sounded we were unexpectedly stuck in a jam on the highway, caused by an accident, just before the exit we needed for Alor Gajah. Fortunately there was still plenty of grub when we finally made it to Mak's house - and lots of noisy company.

And today we broke the fast at Fuad and Rozita's, again with quite a bit of joyful noise.

What begins as a challenge to the self soon transmutes into a communal experience in which the self, and its tedious needs, can be almost forgotten.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Home Improvement

11 Ramadhan 1434

It turns out that I was our designated driver for last night's little jaunt to the Malaysian capital. For some reason I emerged wide-awake from breaking the fast and remained so until 02.30 today when we arrived and I collapsed.

All is in good order here with the renovation work coming to an end. Indeed, I'm surprised and delighted at just how much improvement to the homestead has been effected. We are most fortunate in having Fuad around to direct matters related to home improvement.

I think the plan is to move on to Melaka to break our fast later, for the first time this Ramadhan in company. All very jolly - more than satisfactory, indeed.

Friday, July 19, 2013

It's All Go!

10 Ramadhan 1434

Spent the morning being something official for a cross-country and the afternoon, after prayers, overseeing rehearsals for some drama we've got coming up. And after the breaking the fast later we'll be driving up to KL. How does the man do it (and at his age)? you ask.

Well to tell the truth, all I had to do was to stand next to the track and watch others toiling this morning, then I managed to sleep before prayers, and it was my talented drama guys who were doing all the directing and acting this afternoon. Now all I need to do is fob the driving off on Noi and Fuad (who's coming along with Rozita later) and I'll have had a most relaxing day.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Gaze Turned Inward

9 Ramadhan 1434

It's an odd thing but in this, as every, fasting month the first few days, the initial third, have been characterised by a distinct sense of turning inward. We really haven't been out much, for example. And we've broken the fast, so far, with just the two of us, alone as it were. What will happen is that the month will turn steadily more public, there'll be a sense of growing outward. I know this because it's always this way.

And that's odd because Ramadhan is not fixed to one time of year in the calendar that tells us this is 2013. It moves through the year, backwards as it were. The shifting backwards means you are guaranteed each year to be fasting at a time that's quite different in terms of routines of work, or the society around you. Yet the fast strangely repeats itself, with its own distinct rhythms of introversion and extraversion.

Looking inwards is always a bit worrying, of course. But one thing has changed. What used to be distressing is now essentially comical.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Time And A Word

8 Ramadhan 1434

By my reckoning time slows down in the month of fasting such that a day lasts twice as long as usual. This applies, by the way, to the hours after breaking the fast as well as the hours spent fasting. Of course, when you're fasting time slows down as you wait, patiently, patiently, impatiently, patiently, until that wonderful moment when you can lift the embargo on liquids easing their way down the gullet. But once the fast is broken, far from time rushing by to get you back to the desert, as you might expect, the opposite is the case. You seem to have endless hours at hand to munch and gurgle delightedly, even when you don't actually do any of that. (It's the license to do so that's crucial, you see.)

I suppose it all comes down to the intensity of every aspect of the experience.

Which leads me to my point. I realised today that I've spent well over a year of my life fasting now - that is, putting together all the Ramadhans I've enjoyed since the later years of the 1990's. And since each of those was twice as long as any normal month that means I've gained a whole extra year of life. Not a bad bargain eh?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Easing In

7 Ramadhan 1434

So it's basically been a week since fasting began - not that I'm counting, but, of course, I am. And I can't honestly say that I've felt the physical demands in any very big way. Work has been relatively routine - we've been doing exams so I've been marking and invigilating and not too much else. That's about to change, though, so there may be surprises in store.

Of course, I've felt tired, and will continue to do so to the last day, I'm sure. But, except for stretches on the first couple of days, I haven't felt drained, and that's a mercy.

But what has been difficult, as always, has been managing the other less visible aspects of what the experience asks of you. Early on the first morning, for example, I had a sudden flash of temper - quite reasonably so - but reasonably doesn't count for anything. You simply have to keep control, no matter what. Now I know how Dr Banner feels. Hah!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Worlds Colliding

6 Ramadhan 1434

I'd intended my reading for Ramadhan to be a reprise of last year's: Pickthall's translation of The Holy Qur'an - which I didn't read end to end - and Seyyed Hossein Nasr's essays in Islamic Life and Thought - which I enjoyed but felt worth another go, to grapple once more with the density of thought therein. I also thought that I would have been able to put aside Kafka's The Trial which had been my main pre-Ramadhan reading before fasting began. However, I've found the three overlapping as I was enjoying reading The Trial again so much at a very slow speed that I really couldn't find it within myself to speed up; and the overlapping has been, of itself, quite fascinating - like traversing radically different terrains, only to  find that what's underfoot is pretty much the same earth after all.

Today I finished the final sections of Kafka's masterpiece (and unfinished as it may be it hangs together as integral to itself as any of the Old Master's) namely the haunting allegory on the door to the Law that Josef K listens to, and has dizzyingly explicated for him, in the Cathedral, and the final chapter in which K dies like a dog. Then immediately I moved onto Nasr's essays on The Concept and Reality of Freedom and The Shari'ah and Changing Historical Conditions - both essentially dealing with the Islamic concept of Law.

It was an odd transition. The thought-worlds were so different and yet, at their centre, were dealing with the same ideas. And I found myself entirely sympathetic to both, which on the surface might be thought impossible. But they really represent different sides of a coin - one dark and forbidding; the other attempting to illuminate those dark corners.

It is only in our relation to the Law that some kind of freedom is available.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

In Excess

5 Ramadhan 1434

The sense of being part of something quite extraordinary in terms of the reach of the fast world wide is thrilling. The experience of the individual is intense, but it's simply part of something far greater than the individual and there are constant reminders of that truth in the experience.

This represents the most sane corrective I know to the psychosis of excess inherent in the fabric of capitalist consumerism. In a world that exhorts the individual to consume in order to have a sense of self, a balancing voice tells you that restraint is a supreme virtue.

This is where freedom is to be found, in following that voice.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


4 Ramadhan 1434

On a day when the fast seemed quite straightforward, almost routine, I'm thinking of what The Holy Qur'an tells us with regard to fasting in Al Baqarah: Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and (He desires)that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that peradventure you may be thankful. (This from Pickthall's translation, my choice of version for this month's reading. Beguilingly old-fashioned - that peradventure is nicely typical.) And what I'm thinking is just how strangely true those words are - 'strangely' in the sense that on the surface they are so counter-intuitive and yet every Ramadhan the same magic works.

This year the magic seems to have arrived early - but I'm expecting useful hiccups along the way. The point of all this is that it should be difficult, but not a hardship. We need to learn to welcome, to embrace difficulties. They teach proportion, gratitude, generosity.

Friday, July 12, 2013

In Moderation

3 Ramadhan 1434

I'm about to eat some chicken and salad and reflecting on how wonderfully liberating it is to be able to eat and drink plentifully in the evening after a day of deprivation. The process of fasting makes you understand how extraordinarily fulfilling simple things are.

And just in case you think Noi and I spend the evenings gorging ourselves, it's interesting to note that nothing could be further from the truth. You can only eat in reasonable moderation, otherwise you're going to make yourself feel extremely uncomfortable. So the liberation comes from being able to do something if you wish to, not necessarily doing too much of it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Small Mercies

2 Ramadhan 1434

The time for breaking the fast is approaching and I feel a whole lot better than I did yesterday.

Another paradox of this month: it shows you how strong you can be whilst showing you how weak you really are.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sort Of Routine

1 Ramadhan 1434

Around 12.30 I realised just how tough fasting is. It's not that I'd forgotten exactly, but in looking forward to the holy month I suppose I'd been remembering the final days of fasting in past years when generally things have fallen into place, adaptations having been made. It isn't like that at the beginning and the way I felt just after noon was a fierce reminder: I had an aching head such that it felt my brains had been scooped out and something very bruised forced back into the space they'd occupied. I didn't feel hungry; I didn't feel thirsty. I felt too listless to accommodate either state.

And now there's still more than a couple of hours left before I get to drink again, but, somehow or other, my body is telling me that this is not so bad and we can cope, so stop being a wimp. And that's what I'm going to do.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


If you don't understand why Plato wanted poets banned from The Republic then you don't understand poetry.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Listening to Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer this evening I was aware for the first time of just how strained his voice sounds - not surprising in a man then dealing with cancer of the throat - now, sadly, so longer with us. He sings so well, with such commitment, that the sheer difficulty of what he's doing is not immediately apparent. It's the imperfection of the voice that makes it so powerful.

There's a sort of definition of art in there somewhere.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

In Raptures

It says something for the lackadaisical pace of my reading that I'm only now coming to the final volumes of some books of poetry I bought almost a full year ago. Well, not exactly 'bought'. Said volumes were purchased with some of the book vouchers I got for my talk for the annual Literature Seminar done by the Gifted Education people at MOE. I gave away about half the vouchers to Fafa and Fifi on the grounds that we have no room on the shelves for a whole raft of new books but it seemed appropriate to purchase a few thin volumes of the stuff I'd been talking about.

Anyway, two of the collections were by Carol Ann Duffy. I'd always enjoyed the odd poem here and there I'd seen by her, I was aware of her acquiring a stellar reputation, I like the idea of poets who consciously write for children as well as adults, and when she was appointed Poet Laureate I'd felt embarrassed I didn't know her work in any kind of detail since I am supposed to know something about poetry - being invited to give talks and all. So buying at least a little something seemed a bit of an imperative.

The first of the two I read, last year, Mean Time was a bit of a disappointment. I think I was expecting a bit too much, or had an impression of a kind of writer that Duffy isn't but which I wanted her to be - a sort of English version of Billy Collins. This is not to say I didn't get anything out of the book. But now I don't remember anything vividly from it, the test of an immediate impact. Having said that, I'm quite happy at the idea I'll revisit it soon. That's the way it is with poetry, of course. It so often needs time to grow. Goodness, it took me forty years to start to genuinely respond to Lycidas.

But I've just finished the second of the collections I bought last year, Rapture, and in this case the impact was powerful and immediate. If you want to read an electric, exhilarating account of the madness of falling in love, this is it. The problem is, though, that this is a book you need to read when you're capable of that kind of craziness. I'm thankful that I'm not anymore, but it's oddly stirring and disturbing to be reminded of some of those feelings. There's something adolescent about the poems in the best possible sense - the sense in which we need to retain that aspect of ourselves, that extraordinary generosity of feeling, as Keats did.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

At Reasonable Volume

Noi has bravely driven north for the weekend to oversee the on-going renovation of Maison KL whilst I get on with some marking. This has given me the opportunity to play one or two pieces at a somewhat higher volume than is usual - something approaching what I think might even be reasonable in the concert hall. It turns out that Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin is a good deal more stirring than you might think when you can really hear the percussion towards the end. I hope the neighbours enjoyed it. (Just joking!)

Postscript: Just thought I'd let you know that the music of choice for late on Saturday night was a Sam Cooke compilation. Truly sweet soul music, sadly out of fashion, worthy of any reasonable volume.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Keeping Up Appearances

I remember the first time I ever saw a kid of my own age wearing flared trousers, I'd have been around thirteen, I think. I thought they were the coolest thing I'd ever seen on one of my peers, though I'm not entirely sure the word 'cool' was a natural part of my vocabulary back then. There was a real physical excitement involved in the idea of looking so different to the older generation. So there was a time when I must have been to some degree interested in fashion in the sense of wanting to look trendy, that being a term definitely in use. Strange, isn't it? The interest in any kind of intense sense didn't last too long - it'd largely gone by my early twenties and not too long after that reached zero.

But I realised today that I rather enjoy the fashions young people adopt. The thought was partly prompted by seeing the students at my school dressed in 'home clothes' for something termed Youth Day held annually in this Far Place. (There's a day for pretty much everybody here as far as I can tell.) Most dressed pretty conservatively but there were a few nods towards looking somewhat more funky and a few brave souls opted for outright silliness, which was highly refreshing.

And then this afternoon, for reasons which completely escape me, I settled to watch about an hour of music videos on the telly. Almost everything was completely unfamiliar but I found myself appreciating the fun, colour and imagination of it all. Even at a distance of years I could get a sense of why this kind of thing might be important to its natural audience. And I'll tell you one thing for sure: the dancing has improved several hundred-fold from what you might have seen back in my days.

I'm thankful not to feel any concern about appearance at all - other than ensuring nothing important comes unzipped - but it's part of the pleasurable texture of life that others do feel such concern and put on quite a show.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

More Waste?

Got hold of a copy of the programme for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's 2013/2014 Season today, and a very handsome volume indeed it is, running to no fewer than 80 glossy pages. Aesthetically highly pleasing and completely free. But hang on a minute. Isn't somebody, somewhere, somehow paying for all this? And is it really necessary to market the SSO in such a fulsome manner? Probably the answer to that last question is yes, and it's just that I don't understand the economics of all this - in the same way that I can't figure out why it somehow makes money to knock down perfectly reasonable buildings less than thirty years old and build new bigger, uglier ones. After all, it's well known that the planet has limitless resources.

The actual programme for the season looked very conservative to me at first glance, but then it occurred to me that if you've never heard the old war-horses live you'd probably be highly excited at the opportunity to do so, as I was, once upon a time. Anyway, given my extremely poor attendance of the concert hall in recent years it hardly behoves me to make moan, and I really must find a way to attend the Shostakovich 5 and Strauss's Four Last Songs. They're also doing the St John Passion next year, which I've never heard live, but I'm not sure I'm up to Bach played by a twenty-first century symphony orchestra having listened to the Passions almost exclusively on original instruments.

The problem is though that I waste too many opportunities to hear wonderful music performed wonderfully, so I really should take every chance I get.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Citizens Of The World

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Ola the other day and happened to ask him if he went back home often. It turns out that he sees less of his native land than I do of mine. It was particularly striking that his two daughters, around ten to thirteen years old, I think, have hardly been in Nigeria at all. The younger one doesn't remember anything about it at all, though they do, as a family, talk about life there.

What must it be like to be the citizen of a land you have never really lived in, and may never do so in the future? It suddenly struck me that Ola's girls were probably not all that unusual in their experience, and may represent a considerable portion of a generation growing up 'globalised' in quite a new sense. Someone who sees patriotism as one of the great virtues might find this notion disturbing. But I'm not that someone, and I see it as exciting.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Going To Waste

An article in today's Straits Times noted a substantial increase in the amount of food wasted in this Far Place over the last ten years or so. Those familiar with the astonishing fact that something like a whopping half of all food in the world never makes it into anyone's stomach would not have been surprised, so I wasn't. It comes with development, it seems. Waste is systemic. Putting all those enticing delicacies on the shelves to inflame our appetites involves creating surplus delicacies to ensure that profits are maximised. We already have too much and the answer is to create more.

Do you ever get the feeling that our species is an experiment of nature that has gone sadly wrong?