The rhythms of Ramadan

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A city which is normally calm has turned drowsy.

At 2.15 in the afternoon, trails of vehicles drive their inhabitants towards the siesta. But even the rhythms of sleep, during the holy month of Ramadan are different, grabbed between prayers and the breaking of the fast.

In this city, Ramadan is a time for family. Evening Iftars do take place in the swankier hotels and club houses, but as the sun sets, most of the city’s dwellers head home.

Five years ago I spent Ramadan in another Gulf state and was overwhelmed by the sudden silence of the place. Here it is the rejigging of the days which surprises, recalibrates the system. The bank and gym close three hours early, cafes are out of action until nightfall. Suddenly this seaside town is populated by owls, eyeing menus into the early hours.

Sounds of the qu’ran recited float from car radios. The call to prayer has a different quality and smiles, common currency in this part of the world are even quicker returned, as if to keep on lifting that single chain which holds us all together, regardless of any other thing, Muscat’s residents joined by centuries old tradition.

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Love lessons

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A friend once told me that her job meant loving every person who entered her practice room. Her clients brought wounds and flowers, she loved them all. It made sense this four-letter word should be the mainstay of therapy, its natural pacemaker.

But a few weeks ago I was surprised to find that I had fallen in love with a school. A school? You may ask. Well not the building exactly. But the work, the place, its people, their process.

The building stands where the city’s edge meets jagged rock. Children from over 62 countries move from lesson to lesson without bells. The classes aren’t large.

I first taught there when I arrived in Muscat a couple of years ago . I remember overhearing two children discussing something. One of them asking the other:

‘What’s bullying?’

That. Right there. The reason I love this school. Because I had never heard such a thing from a child in an educational establishment. From a fifteen year old.

Or the girl who came to find me during break time, to tell me they had sold out of the origami boxes I had liked and she was very sorry. Seven years old, from the elementary section.

And the student from Grade 9 who had defied me so beautifully. They were writing science fiction short stories.

‘Avoid,’ I  had said ‘using the second person. It’s powerful but hard to do. I wouldn’t try it. Not yet.’

I should have seen her expression. Noticed her sit up when I suggested what ‘you’ might add to her words. The next day I received her story, it was directed entirely at its reader and its raw power brought tears to my eyes.

Another English teacher took me under her wing. Seeing I would need to learn a whole curriculum in a few days, she made herself available.

‘Just drop by,’

And I did, asking questions week after week until I got the gist of this half-taught unit another teacher had left for someone else to pick up.

Love sometimes is presence, for another.

The walls of the school have posters about the I.B. If you’ve every taught it or studied it you’ll know it’s rigorous and open, that students often emerge from the diploma caring consciously about the planet and its people. The posters use words like: integrity, diversity, willingness to take risks, caring, inquiry.

And it is these abstract nouns, I think, which grabbed my heart, in the actions of its purveyors, the children here, the staff.

 

How does love feature in your work? Please feel free to share your thoughts below….

Three tips to survive the Gulf heat

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Heat has enveloped the city. We are caught in its embrace.  The children I teach insist on cool blasts of air-con, non-stop during class. Donning skinny jeans and retro trainers, they hide in hoodies like adolescents anywhere. Except that here midday hits 40 degrees with ease and not a soul walks down the street.

By the time I step into the light after work, I am shivering from the fridge-like indoors. The steering wheel of my car has all the appeal of gripping a burning torch and I realise it may be possible to brew a cup of tea with the water inside the bottle on the passenger side.

So while Muscat’s barometers have sent even the mosquitoes packing, I have decided not to flee to the UK this summer. My survival strategy for the extreme heat follows:

*As I can no longer exercise outside (read: barely walk out of the front door), I have joined a gym. It’s cool inside and  I get to hear the PTs putting people through their pre-Ramadan paces.

*Driving is improved by a) parking in the shade whenever possible b) Tinted windows (which might look gangsta but help) c) Wearing sandals and cotton (which don’t look gangsta but help) .

*Deciding to enjoy what is. In this part of the world, as well as searing temperatures, May/June means date season: nature’s sticky cakes with a stone are fab with a cup of tea, a few minutes of sunshine, when I can bear it, almost feels refreshing after so much time spent indoors.

Occasionally, in the early morning as I close the front door and leave for work, the faintest scent of the sea reaches the air, birds caw, the heat hasn’t yet found the day. For a moment at least, I’ve forgotten it’s there.

Live somewhere hot? What are your recommendations to survive the summer?

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King Fu Dining

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You have to go in first, then give me five minutes and I’ll follow.’ 

My husband’s plan sounds complicated.

There’s a small takeaway, it looks ordinary but to the right is a door. Ask if you can enter. You’ll see some creaky stairs. Head for the upper storey.’

In a city of large malls and chain stores we are entering somewhere unusual. Chinese restaurants are rare in Muscat and this one, more like a living room for those in the know. I sit alone waiting for my husband. Dressed in Omani gear he is concerned they won’t let him in.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ I protest, but as I look around the underwhelming interior I notice that I am the only person who is not Chinese.

I am reminded of capital cities in the West with their exclusive nightclubs and restaurants, doormen and pass codes. Strangely, subtly this restaurant seems to be doing the same. It’s hidden behind the facade of a take away. As the woman who owns the place hands me a menu I feel a frisson of apprehension.

Muscat houses neither Dubai’s glitz nor Abu Dhabi’s up and coming status. It has beautiful scenery, easygoing people and a cautious political neutrality. Muscat’s social scene is far from exclusive.

I choose some dishes. Listen for creaks on the stair. What if my husband isn’t allowed in? The waiter brings steaming won ton soup, dim sum. I start to tuck in. Am transported to a country I have never visited by the vowels and chatter from the tables nearby.

Dishes arrive from the hands of the owner and when my husband eventually makes it up the secret staircase it seems that he and the owner already know one another. She had worked in the Chinese restaurant of a palatial hotel located in the mountains and quit when the management changed hands.

There is care in the way she describes dishes, handles her customers, the type of knowing which comes from learning the business then setting up from scratch. It’s wonderful to be part of a culinary secret but something tells me it won’t stay that way for long.

Kung Fu “Authentic Chinese Restaurant” is located next to Fun Zone in Al Qurum Street, Muscat 

(Be prepared to use the secret door…)

Anyone in Muscat have unusual restaurant recommendations?  Feel free to post below…

 

 

 

The ink of ideas: is ‘showing up’ enough?

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‘I’m against schedules. Write when you feel excited by the prospect.’ (Rick Moody)

‘Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.’ (Isabel Allende)

 

Who are we to believe? Those who make a muse of ‘inspiration’  or the grafters who turn up at the writing desk, rain or shine, like bank clerks to their counters?

Last year when I began work on my novel I joined the write-whether-you-feel-inspired-or-not school of thought, believing that if I waited for inspiration each day, I may never write at all. At least if I ‘showed up’ and didn’t like what I wrote, I could cut it later.

Sometimes ideas need to be caught before they fly off again, as Elizabeth Gilbert describes in this wonderful part of her TED talk: here (Thanks Mari for the reminder).

‘Showing up’ is the commitment necessary to make inspiration real. Without the grounding nature of routine, ideas, in my experience, stay floating, like untethered balloons. Last year, working on my novel occasionally felt dull or really difficult, sometimes both (!) but as long as I still cared enough about my initial idea, it fueled what I wrote each day.

I still subscribe to this routine although – I imagine, like anyone who makes things –   I can only ‘show up’ if I already have an idea, not a plan of the minutiae of everyday writing but a bigger concept which carries the work through. (Short of a big idea, I’ll do something else for a while.)  For when inspiration arrives, it becomes like a flock of birds moving in formation. The job, then, is to get that divine pattern down on paper, typing daily until it’s done (‘show up, show up!’)

Ideas are writing’s ink, its flow, the breath which supports movement. If there is ink in the well, the pen will find a way to keep on writing.

What part do ideas and ‘showing up’ play in your creative life? Please feel free to comment below…

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I will write about this one day

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‘Beginnings are difficult,’ I remember some years ago a friend from Bavaria trying to cheer me up. I was battling at the start of a secondary school teaching post. It did get better, mainly because I learnt to don invisible armour each morning along with my sword of triple-strength coffee and shield of practiced one-liners.

Beginnings are difficult but so are endings. I just finished reading the wonderful Me before You by Jo Jo Moyes and was dawdling so long on the final pages that my kindle almost switched itself off.

I’m reaching the end of editing my first novel. The final process has felt like fashioning a table from wood, carving each detail, then flinging it via mortar to the stars. The publishing world can be brutal. Agents take on few authors each year. Many publishers won’t accept manuscripts without an agent involved. ‘Have you thought of self-publishing?’ a writer-relative asked me recently. We exchanged a series of emails confirming that I will probably persist with the traditional route.

After the first three chapters have been sent, they say that waiting can be the trickiest part. ‘Start working on something else!’ chorus the writer blogs.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic describes how she thinks up new stories. Her view is that ideas are floating about looking for someone to grab them and commit them to language. I’m not sure I would give them this level of agency but her attitude to making novels is life-affirming and contagious.

And if an idea doesn’t come soon? There is always the writer Clive James’ approach (again from Gilbert’s book, abridged):

Following a commercial failure in the West End…

James’ young daughters[ …]asked him if he would please do something to make their shabby old secondhand bicycles look nicer[…], he hauled himself up off the couch and took on the project….The girls grew impatient for him to finish but James found that he could not stop painting stars [on the bikes]. It was incredibly satisfying work. When at last he was done, his daughters pedaled off on their magical new bikes, thrilled with the effect…The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighbourhood, who asked if Mr James might please paint stars on her bicycle…as he did so, something was coming back to life. Clive James at last had this thought, I will write about this one day. And in that moment he was free, failure had departed, the creator had returned.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s assertion that in doing something else we are freeing up the channels of creativity because the pressure is off. ‘Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play” – the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another.’ Beginnings are still difficult, but somehow less so when starting out is couched as play.

Is creativity its own reward? What is your experience of writing/making art/music and posting it off for publication? I’d love to hear from you below...

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A coffee morning confession

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Welcome

‘Thank you’

‘What’s your name?’

I told her.

‘What do you do?’

‘I’m writing my first novel,’

She looked interested, told me she used to write short stories, articles, longer pieces and then she had stopped.

We were chatting over tea and chocolatey pastries at the weekly Women’s Guild coffee morning. I hadn’t been for months, life had intervened. The atmosphere was lively, I was talking to another writer.

‘It all became too personal,‘ she said. ‘I didn’t want to share that much of myself in my writing so I stopped.’

I  was intrigued to hear the sentiment from someone else. Over Christmas I had been thinking the same thing, had even asked a friend, ‘When you read a novel do you ever wonder where the author found her material?‘ My friend had looked genuinely surprised. ‘No I just get into the story.’

When I read, I often think of the person who wrote the book. What prompted her to choose the setting, dream up particular characters, then balance their life on the novel’s premise.  However disguised, the narrative must come from somewhere.

It may emerge like a patchwork or a word-for-word transcription of real events. It may take place miles from the writer’s place of residence, be told as comedy when what originally occurred was not funny at all but if it is to have any integrity its essence will reflect what the writer knows in herself to be true.

It is the rawness of this, I think, which informed my coffee companion’s unwillingness to pick up the pen again. It can sometimes feel too exposing, to real to set thoughts down.

But when I hear that a writer has stopped writing, I think of the birds who sing so loudly close to my apartment.  I imagine them setting down their song, falling silent and I feel, then, that the world has lost some of its colour. Even when it’s only one bird retiring from the fray.

Writers, what motivates you to write? What keeps you writing? Readers, to what extent do you connect a piece of fiction with the author who wrote it? I would love to hear from you in the comments section below…

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