What Ramadan has taught me about understanding

The 27th night of Ramadan is revered. It is understood to be the night the first verses of the Qu’ran were revealed to Prophet Muhammed. It’s called Laylat al-Qadr – the Night of Power.

Many Muslims head to the mosque to pray all tarawih (extra prayers during Ramadan) and yesterday for the first time in a few years I decided to do just that. I went along to the Inclusive Mosque InitiativeInclusive Mosque Initiative‘s prayer evening and 9 hours after leaving I am still floating.

We spent the evening praying, in dhikr (a Sufi form of devotion where you repeat prayers and the name of Allah) and discussing reasons why we were there. It was incredibly powerful and massively different to my usual Friday nights. It gave some headspace and time to reflect on what’s happened over the course of the past 27 days. Forget dervishes, my head is whirling.

Looking back at my first diary post, I mused about the changes in my life – new home and a different working pattern. How trivial compared to the events of Orlando, Jo Cox and then Brexit. To work through those on zero energy, dropping a couple of waist sizes along the way, has been a challenge. The really important thing for me during Ramadan is to reflect on what things are like for others. So I’ve been thinking, what was life like for the shooter, Omar Mateen? What was life like for Jo Cox’s murder? What is life like for those who voted Brexit? Constantly going counter to my own status quo has brought up a range of emotions and feelings. Were they justified? Were they sane? Were they understood?

It’s the last question I get stuck on. Omar Mateen was not understood. I took to writing about it, was invited onto Sky News and organising a big gay iftaar to do my part in making sure that something like that doesn’t happen again. Reports are now coming in that there was no evidence that Mateen was gay and so the question remains – was he driven by homophobia that had been ignited within Islam? Is it okay that this homophobia means that 49 people are no longer in this world as a result of his actions?

Trying to understand Brexiters has caused a lot more inner turmoil. As a native Londoner and someone who has lived in Germany, I am pro Europe through and through. But as I drove out to Calais I saw the vote remain signs turn to vote leave as we crossed the M25. I saw the 4,000 odd people in The Jungle and heard about their journeys across Europe. It’s a massive failure on behalf of politicians. They are not from the people, for the people. Like in any business, if the management is so disconnected from its workforce, there will be an uprising. Brexit is just that. Cameron, Gove, Johnson. They’ve all failed to get out of the bubble and understand what’s happening on this island. And now we have the result, two of them are failing massively at being what we need so sorely right now: a leader.

Yes articles appear that it’s not binding. Article 50 might not be invoked. And thousands have taken to the streets of London to march but quite simply – we are where we are because as people, we were losing the ability to understand others. We’re fed by an algorithm of news that is based on a Britney Spears song: Gimme More. Enough is enough. Have a conversation with someone who has an opposing view. Have that conversation in real life. Look them in the eye and understand where they’re coming from. The internet is ruining us otherwise.

Every day we have a need to understand others. I remembered that yesterday as the bus was terminated at 4am. Why? Because a pale-looking gentleman threw up on the bus two stops before mine. I could have gotten angry. I could have tutted. I couldn’t have shouted ‘get out of my city’. But I looked at him and understood that he just had too much to drink. And it’s not surprising why. Britain is in an uncertain and scary place and as a young person, it’s hard to see the promise. But together we have to get through it. And understanding is the only way through it.

The best-laid plans

My intention was to write a post a day during Ramadan. It was a noble intention – to keep track of my feelings and thoughts as the month progressed.
And then Calais happened. Last weekend I found myself in ‘The Jungle’ – a refugee camp in Calais where there are over 3,000 refugees and migrants trying to make their way to the UK. It was an eye opening experience. One that made me realise that my struggles – on the grand scheme of things – are nothing compared to those of the people I met. I also realised that the way the ‘migrant crisis’ is portrayed in the UK media does not take into account the full nuance of what’s happening. Yes, these people left their country. Did they have a choice? The answer to that is subjective. What it does mean is that we – as a human race – need to pay attention to the fact that decisions made in board and cabinet rooms have a real impact on human lives.
Just as I thought I’d get back to my fairly banal musings, Orlando happened. I want to say it has sent a ripple through the Muslim and LGBT communities, but it’s really sent a ripple through the world. The equality and peace we thought we were reaching has been undermined. An earthquake to the otherwise stable ground of liberalness. The shooting then triggered e-mails, phone calls, interviews, appearances, photos and events. It’s fair to say it was truly a whirlwind. So much for the simple daily diary.
It’s made me learn that no matter how good your intention might be, life happens. And when life happens it causes upheaval. Through all of these events I feel so very thankful for what I’ve got and what I’ve been given. It’s caused a big readjustment in the way I think about things.
We’ve reached the half way mark of Ramadan. This is the time I find the hardest. I can’t remember life pre-fasting and a life post-fasting still seems quite far away. Onwards!

On the diversity bus

One of the hardest things about Ramadan for me is not being able to cycle around London. I know that getting on my bike might seem like a good idea at first, but the energy and fatigue it would cause just wouldn’t be worth it.

As a result, I’ve been reliant on the London bus network to get around. I’ve got a love (it’s cooler temperature-wise and has natural daylight) // hate (they’re always late and delayed) relationship with buses. But today sitting on the 453 to Deptford gave me a new found appreciation for something I’m so very passionate about.

Diversity.

I saw a black child and a white child playing and learning together as you see in this photo (it’s not creepy, I cropped out faces).

Diversity-Bus

How amazing, I thought. The conditioning of their backgrounds and skin colour have no impact on them playing together and learning from one another.

It got me thinking about the Great British Diversity Experiment that I’ve been involved in lately. I was put in a very diverse team of 10 marketers in the bid to solve a brief from Tesco. We documented the experience and long story short our team (the ‘Diversiteam’) won!

A few weeks ago Renato TataKat Murray-Clark and I were invited on stage to talk about our experience. There are a plethora of tweets with soundbites from our talk, but the one we ended on was “when will diversity stop being an experiment and just be the norm”.

Approaching six working years (oh how the time flies) I’m taking a bit of time to take stock about what I’ve learnt. Often you don’t know how much you know until you sit down and think it through. And that’s exactly why Ramadan is brilliant. It provides sorely needed reflection time and energy to think about what’s going on in my life and also in the world.

Sitting on the bus today I realised that we’re surrounded by diversity. It simply is the norm. It’s the norm on the bus, in the supermarket, out on the streets, but step into an advermarketingpr agency and it starts to disappear.

Change is going to take a long time and a lot of concerted effort (more to follow on that soon) but today I’m very happy to be on the diversity bus if it will lead to a world where the kids pictured grow up to work together in whatever field they choose to without the need for further experiments.

 

What to do at lunchtime during Ramadan

Lunchtime.

Time for a break. A bit of sustenance and a pick me up for the afternoon.

Not so.

Today I find myself half way through a film shoot. It hasn’t been an overly strenuous – things have sort of fallen into place along the way – but I’m feeling the fatigue. Yesterday I wrote about fasting having little impact on work and concentration and today I’m seeing that in action. I won’t lie. Trying to stay focussed is a little challenging, but I know that as soon as we wrap in a few hours I’ll have earned a nap before sunset.

I always find it amusing how every year I get the same questions about no water, losing weight and the lack of concentration. I think one year I’ll hand out leaflets. One thing that has struck me is that a lot of people think about Ramadan from their own viewpoint. A sense of  ‘I couldn’t do that’ and ‘That wouldn’t work for me’.

That got me thinking. In my professional time I spend a lot of time talking about unconscious bias and how we are conditioned to think a certain way without even acknowledging it. That’s what I’m learning to love about Ramadan. It’s putting me in a frame of mind of someone who – 11 months of the year – I am not. If I were not in the lucky position I am in, with the education I’ve had and the opportunities I’ve been afforded, there is just so much I wouldn’t be able to do both personally and professionally.

The slight onset of a headache and a little bit of dizziness is adding to that sense of gratefulness. It might sound crazy, but this really is a strengthening exercise for both body and mind.

 

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Feasting after dark

I’m thinking about two things today:

How little I’ve eaten

There I was yesterday evening thinking I would enjoy a veritable feast having fasted the whole day.

Wrong.

After 5 dates, 1 banana, 1 yoghurt, 1 samosa and 2 pakoras I felt more stuffed than I have after a full Sunday roast with all the trimmings. They (I don’t know who ‘they’ is) say that your stomach shrinks when you fast and it’s no joke. After a brisk walk I could stomach some pasta and salad and that was me done for the day. I woke up at 2am, had a bowl of Fruit and Fibre, another banana, a yoghurt, and back to bed I went.

A lot of people ask me whether I feast after the sun sets. The answer is quite simply no. It’s almost impossible! It’s quite a strange feeling not being physically able to eat what and when you want to but I have to say I’m finding it really refreshing. I’m more productive (helped by working from home) and despite the odd moment, really focussed.

It remains to be seen what impact the lower food intake will have on my waistline. Cue the oft-cited: “gosh you’re just disappearing before my eyes” looks with :emoji: concerned face.

How many Ramadan articles I’ve read

Oh my days. There were so many Muslim memes doing the rounds yesterday. It wasn’t just Buzzfeed – I even spotted one on the Telegraph (yes they are frightfully similar articles)! That’s a pretty nice thing to see. Back when I wrote about Ramadan for the Huffington Post there were so few articles out there…it’s promising to see the mainstream media – online at least – providing a space for Muslims to talk about Ramadan. It’s always bugged me that for one month a year we were pushed to media such as Sunrise Radio and BBC Asian Network. Great as they are, it’s good to see fish where the fish aren’t swimming if you catch my drift.

Oh, but then there was this vitriol from Katie Hopkins. Here’s the funny thing. She’s right. Britain has changed. And Ramadan could be seen as a slight on productivity. Yes in manual labour that could be dangerous as the example in her article shows, but in the service industry (which I’m in) I’m finding it’s providing a great sense of productivity and focus.

It sometimes feels like one day is actually two (waking up twice in a 12 hour period I suppose) but I’m thankful that fasts are going well so far.

Onwards!

 

Why I’m starting a daily Ramadan diary

How smoke, it’s Ramadan again! I can’t believe it’s been a year since the last one. What’s changed?

I’ve moved house. For the first time I’m living alone. I don’t have to feel worried about waking up my non-Muslim flatmate when getting up to eat Sehri (the sunrise meal).

I am working from home. I have shifted my working pattern so it’s more conducive to the very long days. Fasts start at 2:45 and finish at 9:30. That’s 19 hours abstaining from one of my biggest pleasures – food and drink and the relief of not having to take the brunt of the rat race and the onslaught of coffee shops is something I am tremendously thankful for.

Today I’ve been thinking about how ashamed I’ve sometimes felt to publicly practice and talk about my religion. I know why this has happened. It’s the worry that I’ll be accused of being a terrorist. When I moved into my flat I thought long and hard about the curtains being open whilst I was praying in my front room. Think about it – a single Muslim man living alone and praying. I fit the media-portrayed profile. What would the neighbours say? I shouldn’t worry, but these things have crossed my mind after reading about men being kicked off planes and trains for uttering prayers that have invoked suspicion.

I suppose two things are slowly changing my own attitude towards this. The first is that I am finding new and interesting places to express my Muslim identity. The Inclusive Mosque Initiative is the first place I’ve found that is full of liberal Muslims. A place where women lead prayers and where your race, gender and sexuality don’t prohibit you from being a Muslim.

The second is that we have a Muslim mayor. I cannot understate how game changing it is to read articles like this from Sadiq Khan. To have someone else broadcasting what it’s like to be a liberal Muslim and working a day job makes me remember that although I’ve sometimes felt like the only one undertaking Ramadan, there are millions of other Muslims around the world doing the same. It reminds me of a quote by philosopher David Hume: “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster”. That’s something that Ramadan always reminds me. That no matter what my woe is, it is insignificant in comparison to the greater woes of the world and if anything, someone, somewhere else will have experienced the same.

It’s my intention this year to keep a daily diary of how the month is unfolding. I’m doing this in part to share the experience and in part so that I can look back in years to come to remember previous experiences. I still look back fondly on one of my first Huffington Post articles back on the first day of Ramadan back in 2013.

It’s always a little nerve wracking heading, but I’m hopeful, thankful and looking forward to the journey. I hope you’ll join me in it.