When My Beloved Aunt Died: A Reflection on Life

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday night at 11pm, I got a call that would change my family’s life forever.

My aunt, a mere 50 something years old, had just died hundreds of miles away in Mombasa, Kenya, due to post-surgery complications. I was alone in bed with my two sleeping toddlers and all I could think of was how surreal this news felt. My aunt, whom my husband had taken a funny selfie with just a few hours earlier, had fallen down on her way to close her living room window at night two days prior, and fractured her hip. I’ve been told that this was an accident waiting to happen, that her hip ligaments had been worn out to almost nothing, and that they had given in to the weight of her body. I’ve been told that this was fate.

At first I was angry.  I was angry that the hospital had been negligent in giving her care: perhaps the anaesthesia was messed up, or they mismanaged her diabetes before surgery. Had they been careless enough to let her go hungry for over 24 hours before going into the operating room? Shouldn’t they have referred her to a bigger hospital, one with more facilities and more expertise in surgery and diabetes? I had a pile of questions but everyone I talked to who was there with her in her final days told me simply that her time had come. 

I talked to a doctor friend of mine and expressed my feelings over the whole affair. “Was it medical negligence”, I asked her, “or was it fate?”

“It may be both,” she replied back after much deliberation on the topic. “The alleged negligence may have been the catalyst in enabling fate.”

I wonder: Are we really in control of anything?

I think of my aunt every single day. When she was widowed over 20 years ago, she had 5 children to feed, house, and educate.  With nothing more that a Singer sewing machine, she made barely enough money to make ends meet, yet she was never one to complain about what she didn’t have.  Sometimes when things were really tough, the family would go quietly hungry but nevertheless, they thrived under the loving canopy of their mother’s presence. The children were each other’s greatest wealth and their mother was Queen of their kingdom.

For most of her life almost everyone called her Aunty but since becoming a grandmother, they resorted to calling her Nyanyaa. She was the communal aunt and grandmother because not once did she ever show preference to her own biological relatives over non-relatives. Everyone respected her merely for her endless capacity to love indiscriminately. And in her death, people from around the world- those who spent years by her side and those who had the pleasure of spending a few hours with her- mourned for her.

And as I wind down writing this post I come to the realisation that maybe we are in control of our lives. Fate may have given my aunt markers that signify major life events-her birth, marriage, her husband’s death- but she was fully in control of her life. God chose her first and last page but she wrote her own story. She was her own author and her book, her legacy to the world, is a bestseller.

………………………………………………….

This post is in loving memory of my aunt, Fatuma Mohamed Ali Peni, who was my mother’s best friend, our family’s guiding light, and my inspiration. In the past few years, I have drawn so much strength and resilience because I had her shining example to emulate from.

May Allah rest her soul in the highest levels of Paradise.

Book Review: The White Elephant

 

By Aishah Adams, published House of Ganiyah LLC (18 Sept. 2016)

Available on Amazon.

Chai Rating: 4.5 out of 5 cups


Practical, insightful, and wise, The White Elephant is an essential read for anyone who is looking into settling into marriage or is going through a divorce. The author, a Public Health Consultant and Personal Development Coach, is herself a divorcee. She addresses and examines the mistakes that she made in her own personal marriage journey and uses them to teach others how to avoid them. Using the teachings from the Quran and the Hadith as foundation for her writing, Ms. Adams provides compelling arguments on how to navigate marital relationships complicated by extended families and culture in the 21st century.

The book is broken down into 3 distinct parts. The first part addresses what too look for in a spouse and the things to consider when you are ready for marriage. The second part talks about the realities of a marriage: the day to day issues such as sex and communication , dealing with in-laws, and defining your identity within a relationship. The third part, which is is a personal big one for me because it was so painful, is divorce. It discusses complex questions such as how to know when to call it quits, how to manage societal expectations and judgements, and how to manage yourself when your marriage ends.

Finally the book addresses domestic abuse within the Islamic context, an issue that I feel is not spoken about enough within Muslim communities. The author makes a strong case for identifying, and leaving, abusive marriages.

“When you stay on in an abusive relationship – whether verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive – it’s almost as though you are teaching those around you to embrace the oppression, especially when there are children present.”

This section also includes interviews from real-life women who share their post-divorce experiences so that readers may learn them.

The Good

Many relationship books that I have read in the past have in addressed relationships in broad, universal, all-encompassing terms and theories.  This book, however, is written specifically for the Muslim woman (and man) in mind.

Islam places a huge emphasis on marriage and many young adults, in their zeal to want to be good Muslims, rush into marriage without examining a marriage prospect carefully and thoroughly for compatibility. It is not uncommon for some to agree to get married on the just the fact that both partners are practicing Muslims who pray and fast. The White Elephant argues for the contrary: that a study of personal characteristics and personal lifestyles and goals of potential spouses are actually in line with Islamic teachings:

And of His signs is that He created you from dust; then, suddenly you were human beings dispersing [throughout the earth].”(Quran)

“It is from His signs and it is important that you cohabit in love and mercy with the person you choose to spend the rest of your life with as explained by this verse. At this point, you’d probably wonder why do we then have so much rancour going on in our marriages today? Why has there been an increase in rates of divorce in our communities today? While it could be a consequence of our straying away from purpose-filled unions, I believe it goes back to a lack of adequate preparation for the journey ahead, which then results in avoidable turbulence, which sometimes leads us to call it quits instead of retracing our steps to continue the journey on a stronger footing. ” 

Why I didn’t give it 5 stars:

The book is so beneficial to anyone who is contemplating marriage or divorce but because it uses Arabic heavily when referencing to the the Quran and the Hadith, I feel like it may not feel as relevant (or useful) to non-Muslims. Perhaps a glossary of terms explaining Arabic words and phrases and Quranic principles would given it more appeal to a wider global readership.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely! I remember talking to a young Catholic couple years back when I was in university who were about to be married. I  was absolutely fascinated when they told me that their priest wouldn’t marry them until they finished taking mandatory pre-marital counseling classes.  This book is the pre-marital counseling class that I always wish my own local Muslim community had.

My favorite quote:

Do not be fooled by a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. Dig deep so you can uncover what
is really in the parcel and not what the cover of the parcel tells you is in it. How many times have you bought a box of an item with the colour of the item in the box being
different from the colour of the item displayed on the cover of the box?

Have you read this book? What do you think of it? Have you read a similar book that you would like to share?

Morocco on My Mind

(Note: I wrote this post in January in a notebook but my computer broke and I couldn’t post it until now. Please assume that this was posted in the last week of January)

I’m writing this on the flight back to London from Marrakech. In the last six days, we toured Marrakech, gone up to Ourika Valley in the Atlas Mountains, and driven across the Atlantic Coast. And althought I have been captivated by its breathtakingly beautiful landscape, I have found that Morocco’s magnetic appeal lies largely with its people.

Anwar (aka my handsome husband/father of my trouble makers/soother of my soul) is sitting on my right peeling succulent tangerines from Marrakech and popping them greedily in his mouth. The kids and my dad are on my left, playing simple tabletop games and laughing. Life does not get better than this at 30,000 feet above sea level.

courtyard at Koutoubia mosque

Six days ago as our plane was making its descent into Menara Airport, Marrakech, I peered out my window and stared with wonderment into the snow peaked Atlas mountains gently giving way to large sweeps of desert sand. Marrakech, its terracota-coloured buildings a stark contract against the clear blue sky, spoke of mysteries waiting to be uncovered. As soon as we landed and stepped out of the plane, I l raised my face upward and soaked in the gentle morning sun rays. After what seemed like endless months of grey winter weather in England, the sun felt glorious.

The airport was clean and organised, with beautiful geometric mosaic patterns adorning the walls and see-through glass ceilings bathing the space with bright natural light. There were large, colourful posters plastered along several points of exit at the airport reminding us proudly that Marrakech was host to the UN Climate Change Conference in 2016.

As we made our way to the car park to find our rental car, we were surprised to find that Mourad, our AirBnB host, had been waiting for us outside to welcome us and to drive us back to our accommodation. The pickup was not part of our AirBnB arrangement-Mourad did it just out of courtesy, a welcoming gesture that we would soon find out was common among Moroccans.

This was a promising beginning to our Moroccan adventure.

Marrakech

The bulk of our trip was concentrated on exploring this fort city. Our AirBnB flat was located outside the medinah in the quite suburb of Maatala. It was the perfect respite from the cacophony of the city center.  Local amenities were within walking distance and it didn’t take long for us to settle into domesticity. We fell in love with a small, unassuming cafe that served wonderful chickpea, lentil, and tripe stews for breakfast for pennies, we bought fresh bread every morning from the shop downstairs, and my husband and father (both huge football fans) watched several African Cup of Nations matches at the nearby Cafe Majid over copious amounts of bitter coffee. One evening when Morocco was playing, the entire neighborhood went up in a uniform roar when their country scored a goal. Thanks to our flat being in a working class neighborhood, I felt like I was part of the community and not a mere spectating tourist.

A few hours after landing in Marrakech we visited Djemaa al Fnaa, the city’s famous market square, in a move that later proved to be a mistake. Unrelentingly chaotic, this city square lived up to its reputation for being the center of a cacophony of sounds, smells, and sights.  What first started out as a quest to find lunch quickly turned into a walkabout in a maze that seemed to have no end. Piercing flutes from snake charmers, drums from folk musicians, wails from monkey performers, calls from juice and food vendors, shouts from stall owners; all these added up to one big headache. When we finally found sanctuary in the Koutoubia mosque across the main street from the square, I didn’t want to leave. The mosque was an oasis of calm and quiet in the middle of the sea of frenzy, and it’s green courtyard provided a cool heaven of rest from the outside world.

Koutoubia mosque

The next day, with a plan in hand this time, we visited the splendid Bahia Palace and marveled at its interconnected rooms painted with beautiful mosaic patterns, its central courtyard of blue tile, and its interior garden complete with lush green oranges trees, date trees and fragrant flowering bushes. The kids loved the palace as much as the adults did and we were reluctant to finally leave the palace gates.

beautiful geometric art throughout the bahia palace

When we left, we had some mint tea at a little restaurant by the palace called ‘Menara Cafe’.  Its owner, Abdulraheem, was a gregarious fellow with a mischievous smile on his face.  He hit it off with my dad immediately.  His sister, Sameera, the quieter but no less friendlier of the two, took care of the food preparation. When I asked them where we could get couscous, Samira offered to cook some especially for us the next day. When we showed up the following day, we were treated to fluffy couscous and beef tagine served in individual sized clay tagine pots.  Abdulraheem and Sameera even gave me a tagine pot to take home the leftovers in, a gift for me to remember them by.

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the tagine that would soon be mine

We spent the rest of the day exploring the souk. We sampled a wonderful tea of roses and herbs, ran our hands over embroidered dresses and scarves, discovered piles of beauty and health tonics and mixtures, and drank freshly pressed orange, kiwi and pomegranate juice. Later, we ate spicy grilled meat and bread dipped in creamy spinach and bought harisa (a chili paste), olives and souvenirs.

Ourika Valley

Day 3 saw us driving us up into the Atlas mountains, a welcome relief from the city. We drove on a winding road up the mountains and stopped three times, the first to take pictures and haggle over crystals, the second to drink some coffee, and the third, to pray. The third stop was at Sitti Fatima and inspired the quiet of the mountains, we decided to have a quick bite that turned into a 3 hour lunch course. Sitting on plastic chairs by a gentle stream with the majesty of the mountains around us, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment.

The kids threw pebbles into the stream for hours and they let screams of delight as the pebbles hit the water. They were laughing from unrestrained joy and as I looked on to them, I remember thinking to myself “Heaven must look a lot like this.”

Essaouira and Agadir

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view of Essaouira

On day 4, we made our way to Essaouira, a quaint beach town about 3 hours west of Marrakech. The day was grey and wet. We only had enough time to walk through the main market housed within the fort walls, but a few hours was all it took for the town to win us over. We arrived at lunchtime and when we asked a Ismail, a short souvenier seller with thick glasses and curly hair with an air of worldiness, for recommendations, he pointed us to the fish stalls. “Go buy fresh fish from there, then take it to any restaurant and ask them to grill them for you.”

Dad’s new friend, Ismail

His recomendation did not disappoint. We made our way to an unassuming cafe with a dark interior and plastic seating.  It looked like it was closed for the day, however the chef popped out of nowhere just as we were about to leave. He instructed his waiter to accompany  Anwar and my dad to the market to buy raw materials for our lunch.

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shopping for lunch

Fresh fish and vegetables in hand, Chef Kareem whipped up a succulent lunch of grilled fish and platters of fresh salad. Anwar, not usually inclined to emotional displays of excitement, nearly wept from pleasure.

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colourful local produce

Unfortunately a small bone that got stuck in my throat temporarily ruined lunch for me, but I was happy to see the rest of the family enjoy their food.

As the evening sun set in, we jumped back into our car and made our way south to Agadir.

We spent the night in Agadir and spent the following morning (day 5) at its market, the largest in Africa.  The market had almost everything you could ever want but my favorite section was the fresh food stalls. I spotted the most gorgeous pile of artichokes that I have ever seen anywhere. We bought some pickled chillies and bottles of olive oil, and large punnets of possibly the world’s sweetest strawberries.

souk delights
biggest artichokes I’ve ever seen

After a quick lunch, we made drove back to Marrakech to get ready for our early morning the next day.

Final thoughts:

We’ve driven across three cities and villages in between; we have seen majestic landscapes of desert, mountain, and sea; we’ve feasted on delicious and locally grown food; and we have met truly some of the kindest people in the world. As a woman, I was relieved to find that I always felt safe.

Morocco has given us happy memories that will last a lifetime. I look forward to visiting other Moroccan cities and villages on our next family trip.

The Realist Guide to Finding Your Dream Job

For years, throughout my college and grad school days, I  struggled to find a career; the one true job that would truly encompass all my skills, education, passion, and creativity. Till today, I still cannot answer the age-old question of ‘who do you want to be when you grow up?’ I want to be so many things!
Perhaps this is why I was so excited to find this TedTalk video recently when I googled resources on finding your dream job, this one diverged so sharply from other career advise articles and videos that fall under the generic summary of ‘follow your passion’. The thing about following your passion is this: it requires you to know what your passion is and if you are anything like me, passion is a plural. How is anyone supposed to make a career out of multiple interests?

What Laura Berman Fortgang attempts to dispel in this talk is the notion that there is only one career choice that fits your passions. She gives a wonderful example of a friend who was a magician, then an architect, then a marketing and advertising executive, and who later came to her because he felt stuck professionally. He wanted to change his job once again to pursue a new career doing something outdoors-y, but he couldn’t reconcile how this new calling fit in with the rest of his life. To Laura, however, his new career interest made perfect sense.  She could see her friend’s common work theme throughout multiple careers; his magic tricks, his architecture, and his city billboards were all based on eliciting a universal human reaction of wonderment across humans of different cultures, languages, and age. Laura’s friend may have held different jobs but who he was as a person was the same throughout his different job titles.  He was someone who inspired awe from others.

You are not your job and your job is not you. For many of us, there is not only one dream job but many dream jobs. You can work in different capacities across different industries because you do not have to do just one thing for life. As long as you are able to express your core essence, it doesn’t matter how many times you change jobs or how much they differ from each other.

“Career satisfaction doesn’t come from what you do, it comes from who you get to be while doing it.”

What do you think of this career advice? How has it impacted you?

 

“I made this call to my mom and I was like, I’m coming back….no, I don’t have a job but maybe I need to be back home for the job to find me”

160825114255-cnn-hero-umra-omar-profile-pkg-00000520-super-169Umra Omar, a native of Lamu, Kenya, works to provide access to healthcare to some of the most marginalized communities in Kenya. Her group, Safari Doctors, offers life-saving medical services to people that would have otherwise have had none.  It is also often targetted by the terrorist group, Al Shabaab.

Does she have any regrets leaving her comfortable life in the USA to do this?

“I have absolutely zero regrets for taking the leap of faith. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Watch more…

http://edition.cnn.com/video/api/embed.html#/video/world/2016/08/25/cnn-hero-umra-omar-profile-pkg.cnn

(photo credits: CNN)

How to Retire Early and Save The World

It’s another dreaded Monday: you wake up, shower, brush your teeth, drop the kids to school, drive to work, sit at the desk for 8 hours, sneak into Facebook in between the hours of 9-5, drive back home, eat dinner, put the kids to bed, throw yourself on the sofa, watch TV, drag your body to bed…and repeat the next day and the next, until Friday comes around when we all celebrate a hypothetical break, only for the cycle to repeat itself again next week, and next month, and next year….until death comes calling.

It’s mind-numbing.

We work to create wealth but does all this wealth really make us any happier? According to studies on happiness, wealth only makes us happy to a certain point. Once we’ve made a certain amount of money (we’ll call that the plateau), then any extra dollar made does not equal to a corresponding gain in happiness. In other words, any leftover from the plateau-fancier cars, bigger house, more elaborate holidays-are mere conspicuous luxury commodities. We upgrade to brighter bling simply to show the world our financial worth.

I’ve been following Mr. Moustache on and off for a few years now, and in his popular lifestyle blog, he preaches that the key to retiring early (he retired at 31 years old) is to spend a lot less than you earn. As a natural thrifter, I whole heartedly agree. In this fascinating talk, Mr. Moustache argues that 3 facts will make you richer:

Fact 1: We all suck at money…but we can change that with an attitude shift

Any money spent that does not make you happier is wasted (most of us fall in this category). Marketing convinces us that YOU MUST BUY X, Y and Z IF YOU WANT TO BE HAPPIER! but all that is really a pack of lies. A $2 spatula is really the same as the $20 spatula, a fancy car will get you to the same destination as a standard one, and a $200 outfit won’t make you any prettier than one for a fraction of the price. Luxury, in and of itself, is a state of mind. I’ve seen people living on a dollar-a- day diet who wear charity shop clothes and cycle to work, and carry themselves with so much self-love.

Fact 2: You can save enough to retire in 10 years….if you spend less then than you earn

A high income earner and an average income earner can both retire at the same time, adjusting for spending habits. If I make $30,000 a year and spend significantly less on living basics yearly (eating in, cycling, cheap housing), I will have, on average, saved the same amount in 10 years as someone earning $300,000 who spends much more on a ‘luxury’ lifestyle (eating out in fancy restaurants, daily taxis, mansions).

Fact 3: Work is better for everyone if you don’t need the money

Imagine that you’ve finally saved away enough money to retire at a relatively young age. You still work, but you work on your own terms and you work at a job that you love. I love this quote by Mr. Moustache: The purpose of work is to create. The purpose of earning money is to have enough money.

Anything that you create out of love feels good, and people tend to buy goods and services laced with goodness.  Think about your own buying experiences: how good did it feel to order from a company whose owners cared about the product they were selling, versus buying from sales people who felt like they were being forced to go to work?

Also, when you work out of passion, you will be able to focus on projects that matter to you and to your community. Passion-driven work is hard, but it rarely feels ‘stressful’. If it feeds your soul, it will also feed the world around you.

What do you think about these facts? Have they inspired you to change your own life?

Is It Stress or Is It Passion?

Sometimes writing can feel a little like building a house specifically for the purpose of air to pass through its windows and doors. No human lives there and day and night, the sound that you put out echoes right back. You pour so much heart and soul into each and every single word  and send your writing out into the world, only for it to go unacknowledged or worse, unnoticed. It’s lonely sometimes and to the immature mind, this- the act of writing and releasing-can seem like such a foolish waste of time. Who in their right mind would spend hours  creating something only for it to wash down the internet drain like a pot of discarded pasta water?

Stress and passion. 

Anything you do out of passion will not feel discouraging. In fact, you will often take failures as directional signs that will helpfully point you on the right way. You may get lost once in a while, but you will always have a resolute determination to find your way home. Writing is my thing; the process of writing is my real reward and the recognition I get from others is just an extra bonus point to the intrinsic joy I get out of expressing myself through words. For others, it may be painting or making music or cooking.  The point is, whatever makes you come alive is never a form of punishment. It is will always feel like an interesting curiosity to be pursued.

This reminds me of the time we had just moved into our new home and I had to paint a sunshine yellow coat over my kids’ deep auburgine colored room. I painted and painted, one coat, then two, then three, and by the end of the day, I was fuming. I never wanted to see purple again. I never wanted to see paint again. I never wanted to touch a paint brush in my whole life ever again. I called up my artsy sister that night, hands and hair covered in specks of yellow, and told her of my frustration and exhaustion. “I wish I was there to paint that room!” she said excitedly. In her mind, a day painting was a day well spent.  To each their own, I guess.

Writing, like any other creative pursuit, is not about receiving. It’s about giving. When I put myself out there-when I write with honesty and authenticity-I am, in fact, offering to the world the best of myself. I often write with an annoying voice in my head screaming ‘failure! failure!failure!, but I write anyway because I know that not writing for fear of failing is actually the biggest failure of all. So fingers to keyboard, I tap away as lovingly as my fluttering heart can guide me.

“As a soul, you have the freedom – and earned responsibility – to transpose your personal process of evolution, to manifest your greatest talents and vision, into the work that matters to you most as a means to personal redemption.”
― Darrell Calkins