.بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
I’ve been having a difficult, though ultimately good, time in this Dunya. As my uncle says, it is highly beneficial to find “the sweetness in the struggle,” as his father, my granddad, used to do. My granddad used to work 10- to 12-hour shifts, here in Whitechapel, at a coat factory. In an unfamiliar land, and look at us now: East London has, for years, been our place of home.
Near the popular East London Mosque, there is a café. Halāl, of course: HMC-certified, in fact [apparently other certification boards still allow the stunning of animals beforehand, which apparently leads to many of them dying prior to the Islamic method of slaughter]. I’ve been sitting here to study. Living my reality. Things only start becoming especially tricky, in this mind of mine, when I start comparing things like my own (lived, directly-experienced, holistic) reality to what others might show, project, of their own.
I find it quite beautiful how, many if not most, people have this general version of ‘self’ that they show the world. Curated versions, on social media, in casual conversations with near-strangers we might sometimes feel forced to call ‘friends’. And then, there is what is realer, and what we sometimes hide. Everyone: core, and shells. Outside, and then: home.
It can prove easy to feel like we are alone in feeling scared, inadequate, ‘weird’, and so forth, in these ways or those. But the more I learn, the more I discover how surprisingly universal these feelings are!
I know that I can be quite socially awkward. At least, in my own head. A good friend of mine says she’s ‘never seen [me] be awkward’, but perhaps that is because we really are mostly focused on our own selves. What we feel in our own heads can often be quite different to what others see of us, and it is amazing to learn more about other people; to ‘open up’ to them more. [Up-close, and sans filters and editing]. Therein, perhaps, is where the most iron-strong of bonds are forged.
You have to let yourself be embarrassed, in front of important people, sometimes. Let some truths… slip out. Have stories to tell: hilariously shame-evoking ones, and the rest. People aren’t mere personas: we aren’t curated movie characters, or social media profiles. A mere picture can: paint a thousand lies.
Now, where had I been going with this? Ah, yes, Subhaan Allah:
Yesterday (or, perhaps, the day before. I wonder if it had been the pandemic, or my general mental ageing, that has resulted in this, my warped sense of time) I sat down to study. An almost-empty café. ‘Vintage’-style wooden furniture. My head, as usual, full of thoughts, coming and going.
An elderly white couple sat at one of the tables behind me. And you know that heavy silence that can pervade a place, when there are two parties of people in a smallish space, and neither one is saying hello? And you can overhear bits of one another’s conversations: the couple, to one another, and I in my online class.
As awkward as I feel myself to be at times, I decided to turn around and say hello. They seemed a bit reluctant to speak to me I think; reluctant to smile. Just seemed a little quiet, save for when they wanted to make some little comments (and perhaps complaints) about this café. I just thought I’d ask if they’re from around here, break that ice-cold silence.
They were from Chelmsford, Essex. Had travelled over an hour, to come to a dental clinic around here; had been spending the day here. And I thought about the fact that I’ve heard about how… there seems to be a high frequency of anti-Muslim, racist, incidents that take place in places like Chelmsford, where non-Muslim people might be scarce. [What if they just… didn’t like who I was, immediately?]
I turned around, and carried on with my thing; they carried on with theirs. I do think I spoke kind of awkwardly: not perfectly ‘smooth’, like movie characters often are. But that’s the point, isn’t it: those characters are fictional. They don’t really share this same privilege of ours, of being shy sometimes, and afraid. Slipping up, being a little rough around the edges. But, as always, our intentions are what count. [In East London terms: man, do I feel like a beg at times.]
As the man and the woman got up to leave, the lady came up to me and said something like, she’s going now. Bye! Enjoy your lunch. And I thought this was cute. But I… awkwardly, pausing from eating, said, “You too!
No, wait, I mean, I hope you enjoy your day!”
Today, I am back here, at this café. I need to invest in a good headset, but for now I’ve been playing my online classes’ audio out loud (though with the volume dampened). I had also been looking, briefly, at a recent report about Islamophobia I had found online [apparently, Muslims are, statistically, the second most disliked group in the UK, after the Traveller community…]. One of my teachers, today, had been reciting a poem in Arabic.
And I thought: there’s someone over there. I… assumed… in my head, that he hadn’t been Muslim [which is terrible of me. Any individual, of any race, can be Muslim]. I worried a little, that he might find what I am listening to weird, or even, in light of modern global politics, an extremist, listening to ‘extremist songs’ [the nature of the poem is actually very sweet: it is about spending time with those who do not really care much for worldly ‘class’ or ‘status’, and who want to be ‘poor men’, i.e. Fuqaraa’, before God.].
And then several people came into the café and joined the man sitting here. One said “As-Salaamu ‘alaikum” to the general group, before sitting with them. In Islam, it is forbidden for us to eavesdrop/spy on things that people wouldn’t want to be seen or heard by others. But they had been speaking moderately loudly: enough for me to overhear some things about Islam, and about “philosophy”.
I wondered, should I ask? Would that be too weird, too nosy of me? I quietly made two Du’as: the mini Istikhara Du’a, which helps with making on-the-spot decisions [Subhaan Allah, it works so well. For example, the other day, I said it, wondering if I should buy a hot drink from a coffee cart. And just then, right after I had made that Du’a, the coffee cart had been closed down for the day! Today I wondered if I should remake a Twitter account. I made that Du’a, and bam! My entire laptop shut down, since it had run out of charge. So I shall take that as a no.].
اللَّهُمَّ خِرْ لِي وَاخْتَرْ لِي
“O Allah, make it good for me, and choose for me.”
The second Du’a I made: what Moosa (AS), i.e. Moses, had said to Allah. [Our circumstances are probably not quite comparable. Moosa (AS) had been tasked with going to the tyrannical Pharoah, to let him know that he had transgressed. I, on the other hand, just felt curious and wanted to talk to a group of strangers…]
I had learnt this Du’a from one of my earliest Islamic teachers:
رَبِّ اشْرَحْ لِي صَدْرِي وَيَسِّرْ لِي أَمْرِي وَاحْلُلْ عُقْدَةً مِنْ لِسَانِي يَفْقَهُوا قَوْلِي
“My Lord, expand for me my chest [with assurance] and ease for me my task,
and untie the knot from my tongue, that they may understand my speech.”
— Qur’an, (20:25-28)
And as the group had been leaving, I just said, “Excuse me,” and “As-Salaamu ‘alaikum”. I apologised for being nosy (but one of them said, it’s fine, they hadn’t exactly been speaking to one another in secret). I said I overheard some things about Islam and philosophy, and was curious. [On the one hand: why am I like this?! On the same hand: I am glad I am like this, Alhamduli Llah.]
Turns out: the group had been staff from the National Zakāt Foundation. They’re working on a charity project in Pakistan, and also do other things like helping Muslims who are struggling financially in this country. Small world: their organisation also funds quite a few of the students, I think, on this Arabic course that I’m on. They spoke about the brother who runs the organisation, and requested Du’as for their project (which involved some rolled-up posters. Very project-y). And (I’m guessing, at least) the person I sort of assumed had not been Muslim, earlier, had been Muslim. In fact: his work is to do with Zakāt, charity.
It was very wrong of me to judge, but I also do love to be positively surprised.
A lady who had eaten at this café – a Niqaabi sister, wearing an elegant green outfit – had recognised me here. She’s my mum’s cousin’s wife, apparently. [I worried I’d been awkward in that conversation too, but again, again, again, ’tis the intentions that count! Perhaps it would be a tad narcissistic, anyway, to ever come to say this about myself: but, my goodness, I find awkwardness in other people to be very endearing indeed! And I just love a touch of colourful ‘weirdness’ in other people. Like with Matt Smith’s Doctor Who: the fez and fish fingers with custard and all.]
Finally, as a person who has certainly been on a journey with my social anxieties, I find it shocking that some things, which have been hard before, now come to me relatively easily. A sister at the table behind me needed a phone charger, and we had a nice conversation, and she called me “babe”. I just think fellow human beings can be very adorable, Maa Shaa Allah, in all the little things that they are.
And I must know to never think that a person is only any series of curated images. As ‘good’ and ‘flawless’ as any image might seem: perhaps it would be a little boring if people had truly, holistically, been the images that we sometimes craft of ourselves, in order to present to people who are not particularly close to us. So much can be projected onto images; so much can be edited, omitted, and dismissed.
And how fortunate are we, that there are some people that we truly get to know, in truth? Like when people do things unthinkingly, and say things unexpectedly, and are actually tangible before us, and we open up to them, and they to us. We are not movie characters; we are not the mere reflections of (entirety of) self, which we might show online or to people. I am glad that I am not reading this life thing of mine off of some smooth script or anything.
Real life: there’s mistakes, and arguments. Spillages, and silences. ‘Redirections’, one after the other. Uncertainties, and personal epiphanies. And all the rest.
Well, in thinking about the Muslim community here in Whitechapel, I posted on my Arabic class’ group chat asking if anybody ever just ponders upon how being Muslim is simply far better than being a Harry Potter wizard. They have their houses; we have our Madhabs. They’re fictional; we have Du’as, and special bookshops, classical Arabic, wonderful Ramadān vibes, and so on. Oh, and: we, are real.
You’re ‘weird‘, in your own ways, and I know that I am, in mine, too. As much as some people will simply not appreciate our weirdnesses… one of my classmates said in response to the above that she loves my brain. I said something like thanks, I should probably get it checked. But then I deleted that, because I guess I am a ‘certified’ over-thinker.
Anyway, no single person alive has any sort of ‘monopoly’ over Islam. Neither I, nor anybody else. Goodness is for sharing, and Allah grants goodness to whom He wills. I have my own (often hidden) social anxieties; everybody else has their own, in some varying ways. And, my life isn’t as ‘perfect’ as any movie or social media aesthetic or whatnot, but I should take my inspiration, surely, from… those aforementioned Fuqaraa’.