A couple of weeks ago:
Mum on the phone from Egypt: Shofty? Did you see?
Eh, what ya mum?
The Ramadan lights. They’ve put up Ramadan things instead of the Christmas things
Ah begad? Really? Where?
In Regent Street or one of those streets.
Oh. I see.
Can you believe it.
Ha. Yes I can.
Mish momkin. It cannot be true.
I hate religion. Particularly the deeply sexist ones, where women are servants, vehicles to seed and produce, rather than complete beings with intellectual facets, hopes and dreams of their own.
As a woman in the world I hold a hard-line on the bearers of misogyny. If not me than who? You’ve got to fight your corner. Comrades or not, the men won’t and don’t do it for, or with us. No matter what feminist talk they talk.
So I have no time for Islam, especially the brand of Wahhabism rife in the UK today. I have even less time for the contemporary British Left’s hypocrisy on the subject: Religion is dated, conservative and is critiqued in discourse, as long at it is establishment religion. Christianity, you can deride and ridicule in writing and in culture. But minority religion, no. Here cultural relativism comes into its worst: as long as oppressed people are practicing it, we don’t reach into that space with our values, no matter how conservative and sexist those practices and social trends are, and how they show up in the world and who they oppress.
There are few things worse than a left built on opposition rather than values.
So I ignore Ramadan.
I ignore it hard.
Secular Arabs, shout loud and proud.
But as always, that’s only part of the story. Ramadan is also where I come from. It’s in my roots, this stuff. Egypt was Islamised in 646AD and like it or not I’m from the world that created the lanterns, the rites, the call for prayer. It is woven through me. I miss waiting at the table for the Iftar cannon to go off at sunset, and eating together at my grandmother’s table. I miss the Ramadan specials on the telly. I miss eating shakshuka, 2atayef and drinking 2amar el deen. I miss that stuff and it pangs me sometimes. But often I don’t think of it at all. And in that duality, I inhabit.
I dust off my little ‘made in china’ Ramadan lantern. I put it on my tableya coffee table. We look at each other for a while.
The thing about Diaspora Feelz, is that it is complicated.
I try not to write pieces about feelings, so as not to contribute to the avalanche of narcissistic writing so pervading Anglo-America today, in fear of adding a pebble to the mountain of empty we’ve built the twenty first century on. No your feelings don’t matter most, the truth matters more. Get a grip.
So then I should get a grip too, right? But the thing is, culture is not harmless. It’s not just other people’s cute rituals in a vacuum. It spreads, like sun-rays or pollen, mold or wild-fire. It is about economics and it is about freedom. It is political and pervasive. It makes and breaks a society. We see things, we brush them to one side, and often as women we press ignore, over and over. Then one day you wake up and think how did it get to this?
And if you’re me: Why didn’t I do something?
Ramadan, as a concentrated display of ritual, is just a fact. Like the weather and Christmas, when it is there, it is everywhere. I may be in the UK, but Islamism seeks me out, creeping round the corner when I least expect it, wearing me down. When more and more people exhibit conservative behaviour, dress conservatively, parading signals of their conservatism, it chokes me and my colours, my short-shorts, my joy for life, my strut and my sex. It chokes me, it chokes me. And this is how it starts.
I lost Cairo, will also lose my corner of London?
The whole thing is – I’m going to use a word I despise (but it’s just so fitting) –
Even the Duolingo girl is veiled. Celebrating Conservatism. Great.
I pick up the lantern and press the plastic button on the bottom. It sings ‘wahawi ya wahawi’, lights flashing. I switch it off and put it down.
Mum knew an Egypt where people wore mini skirts and rode bikes. Where you could go for a bikini-laden swim at the lido and grab a pool-side beer. When I started secondary school in the 90s we had one veiled girl across all forms and age groups. By the time I left university less than a decade later, 80% of women on the street had covered their hair. Friends fell to the teachings of this sheikh or that, covered up and retreated. Men stopped shaking my hand. Roads were closed for public prayer. Mosques got bigger loudspeakers. Sexual harassment and groping went through the roof.
Fundamentalism can have a slow creep, but I smell it a mile away. I was drafting this piece in a London library when she passed behind me, shrouded in black nylon. She stood a couple of metres away, facing the computing bookshelf. She pulled a pop-up prayer mat from her pocket, took off her shoes and began. Allahu Akbar. La Illaha illa allah. I took a deep breath. I could hear her mutter the Fatha. This is how it starts. My throat tightened, like a world closing in. At that moment I felt at one with women in Iran and Afghanistan, of women everywhere who got choked, over time and space. Claustrophobic, angry, powerless.
I told mum.
What? In a library? You can’t just pray like that in a public place in England, I just can’t believe it ya Nadia.
Believe it, mum.
Didn’t the library staff do something?
Mum, think about it, what can they do? This is a multi-ethnic borough. They probably don’t know how to react, and anyway they’d be terrified of being racist or worse “un-inclusive”. Perhaps they’d know what to do if someone was holding a rosary and doing 100 Hail Marys in the corner, but what can they do? I don’t know what anyone can do.
The only thing more depressing than a girl or woman with her hair covered, is the celebration of her subjugation, and a society that doesn’t provide her with a way out.
I fantasized about set up a catholic confession box in library corner as an exercise.
I don’t like feeling helpless.
I don’t like feeling muffled.
And I still don’t know what to do with Ramadan.
I got down on the carpet, crossing my legs and faced the lantern. I looked at its crescent and minaret, and its glitter filled window. I thought about the moon. The cool, calm moon.
More and more women draped in long black sheets shuffle down my high street. Some may applaud what they see as multiculturalism. I just see conservatism
Closing in on me
Draped in black
Pores wrapped in dark cling film
The sexism of it
Up and down the street
A few days later, I looked up at the full moon gone midnight, after a big night out. It was enormous and round and beautiful. I stood in the street and beamed at it – a full grin, arms pinned back. I love the moon, we have a natural affinity with it. Our 50% of humanity, whose bodies cycle and undulate as tides, out and in, out and in, all the seasons in a month.
Then it came to me. The realisation about my Ramadan lantern. It was in its rightful place I thought as I unlocked my door, intoxicated on steak and Malbec. Next to the ACFM turntable mat, and various coasters: Polish communist artwork, Taheya Kariokka belly dancing, me and my mate Matt in Belgium drinking Kwak, and Nigella looking sultrily at the camera grating something. All those things are a little bit of me in some way, things I identify with. They look good together, it is a good collection. The lantern is fine just where it is. And that’s my Ramadan.
The other day:
Shofty Shofty? Did you see?
What now mum?
The SNP guy doing salaat el gom3a
Oh my god really, haha. Of course.
Also guess what, my friend came back from Dubai and says there is no sign of Ramadan there, nothing. No decorations or anything. Weird ha? You guys have swapped places with the Gulf.
Don’t say that mum. That’s depressing. They already own half of London.
Yes, I know.
I’ll just go eat some dates.