A raindrop is lonely until it lands in the ocean
Dear friends, what follows is a piecing-together of reflections which I have gathered here because they seem united by a kind of watery quality. When I used to focus more on poetry I felt as though I was only channeling visions of an of inner world / dreamscape that I had cultivated, often dwelling on the likeness between desert and ocean. This fixation with landscape and the ways it surfaces in language and in the subconscious seems to carry through for me, even in prose. The second section of this letter, titled 'a raindrop is lonely until it lands in the ocean', was written for an assignment for a course on Life Writing and ecriture feminine I took in my final year at university. I have been wishing to share it for some time now and it felt like an appropriate way to tie together these reflections. Perhaps an academically-informed sense of 'writing back' to Euro-centric notions of authorship can be detected there, so I hope it can be enjoyed in isolation from that theoretical context too, simply as a piece of prose.
I think it is important to preface this all by acknowledging the unoriginality of my reflections. I'm sure that is in large part what makes them true:
"I do not think it a coincidence that the advent of the written word was nourished by river water,” writes Olivia Laing.
I've become increasingly nervous and cynical about sharing my writing these days, but in any case, BismiLlah!
Everywhere I go I must take the water of the land. I realised this, ironically, not by the tranquility of a mountain-top spring or skimming over the vastness of the Bosphorous, but by the narrow canals of the banking district in central London. It is very possible that these were the most polluted, most stagnant and impure waters I have sat with this summer, yet it was there that these words surfaced in my mind: a body of water in a city, or any settlement, is a mysterious and a crucial presence. Everywhere I go I must take the water of the land. This 'taking' of water can be by swimming, drinking, or merely sharing in its company.
In Arabic, the word for spring - عين - is the same word, exactly, that is used for eye. In English, the point where the river meets the sea is the mouth. See how our bodies are mapped onto water systems across languages and mothertongues. The Qur'an likens a hardened heart to an impermeable rock. On the other hand, a heart graced with Divine softness is a free flowing stream. Somehow, among those hearts which are likened to stone, are ones which may yet possess the potential to burst open (as an 'eye' or a spring does) and give water, and soften. There is miracle in this, a kind of alchemy, where impermeable stone can turn to cracked-open spring. What can our hearts teach us about the miracles of the earth, then?
I was born by the sea. One of the few photographs I have of my parents while I was in the womb are photographs of them on that headland of the west coast of Ireland. The furthest point west, almost. In Ireland, women like my grandmother go for morning swims every day all year round, often in groups. These groups may become their main source of companionship, community, watering their inner life. Visiting an old friend by the sea in the south of England not long ago, I was happy to discover that she now cannot survive without ritualistic morning swims, cannot imagine life without a great body of water nearby. She says the sea is like a teacher. I curated a collection of imperfectly mottled and pearlescent shells and broken pebbles and have kept them on my person ever since I've returned, in my bag. Now everything else I carry has taken on the salty, stale, scent of ocean. Books, journals, my wallet. The seaside talismans are rocked and thrown around at the bottom of my bag in the same way I imagine they would be turned over by the waves of the sea, edges chiselled and sanded down in the process. Softening through the strife of turbulence, of intimate contact.
There are narrations in the hadith tradition about how the prophet's presence affected rocks. Stone: that most primordial and simple of matter, which we see as inert, lifeless. Under his blessed hands, rocks would come to life. Vibrating, humming, resonating with the song of his presence. His presence, which seemed to change the very state of lifeless matter into life itself. And perhaps these miracles were not a changing of state but a manifesting... an externalisation of an essential reality... that is, the aliveness of all that surrounds us, is in us, below us, makes us up, to which we will return.
I am trying to make a transition into prose. I have not written a poem, a real poem, for a long time and I do not mind this. Beneath the movement towards a new form there is a movement in substance I am aiming towards but it seems fruitless. I always arrive in the same place, writing about my grandmother, or messily attempting to reflect on Qur'anic verses or oral traditions. After resisting this for some time, I have realised that it must be how I am supposed to write. For example, here I had wanted to write about spending time by the Bosphorous in Istanbul, about how the water's presence seems to me to be the saving grace of the city, balancing out its ceaseless franticness with a liquid stillness. The Bosphorous saves Istanbul with its coolness, which restores equilibrium to the heat held in by the city streets, which seduce inhabitants and tourists alike with their many faces... Each neighbourhood like a secret beloved enticing you with an endless stream of black tea and syrupy coffee and street musicians. You are forced to sanctify every spot as the time flies and the calls to prayer come and go. One after another. Until each one of the five has been prayed in a different spot and you are still not home yet!
I aimed to make these memories my muse, yet before reaching them I have already written about the prophet, about one of my grandmothers, have attempted to make this work a kind of worship... flawed and imperfect as it is. More and more, I am letting go of the notion of literary originality. It seems fairly fruitless to engage in the game of authorship when I know in my bones that there is only one Author, that the pen has already been lifted and the ink is already dry. In that sense, I feel free.
A raindrop is lonely until it lands in the ocean
I hold my homeland in my palm.
There is nothing but gasping
– Dunya Mikhail, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea
The moment is this. My grandmother braiding my hair tightly, intentionally, in her bedroom. One morning she signs her name for me on a scrap of paper, something flimsy and ephemeral, and it becomes the most precious thing I own. Can I own it? She cannot write but she is not the illiterate Iraqi grandmother that you imagine. One day my daughter will struggle to write about her, searching for a self further back in her lineage that might have something of the definitiveness, simplicity and clarity that she craves. For she is multitudes, split and spread out and many tongued, a chorus of incongruity. But my grandmother is also multiple, contradictory, fluid, except at prayer times. Then somehow she is solid, intact, gathers herself and finds a place to pray, an internal clock holding her together at her borders, which were ever-moving, elusive.
She signs her name and the half-vowel at the end pools into a semicircle, a valley south of the twin rivers she still dreams of.
In this room the curtains billow open to waft in the vast scent of the sea, not the rivers. We are not at home anymore but we live together, like I always wanted. I cannot own her signature but I also feel deeply that it is the only thing I can write. Must rewrite, save, preserve. If I were to write about us, what would I write except her name?
That was not me, I was not handed that fragment of paper, that was my mother, and the signature belonged to her grandmother. Now I am twice removed from the twin rivers, and the inscriber of the signature is dead, and that moment is my mother’s memory, yet I know it is all I will ever want to write. And what about my mother’s writing? Am I taking that away from her now? The chains of transmission feel more tenuous and so I cling on desperately, clutching in my hand that phantom slip of paper. I say ‘grandmother’ although I have never met her.
My own grandmother has always written and read, until her eyes began to fail recently.
The moment is every time she says ‘every Iraqi could write a book’. Or have I remembered it wrong? it could be ‘we all have a story inside us, ready to be told ’. Cliches have a currency in our language. I feel as though that book is just at the brim of my openings at every moment, it is the paradisiacal haze of early childhood, gardens and all those orchards that belonged to us, ours to run in. Or we belonged to them and they ran in us. Indeed the land was owned by our illiterate Bibi, and she was captivated by it. She is the architect of those memories; mapping our paths, our hiding places, knowing the best spot to plant the fig trees, the damask rose, and her medicinal ward al mawi, whose sky-blue flowers she carefully picked and brewed. We always talked about God in the bushes, and once, because of an electrical fault, one burst into flames. They did dialogue with us, those bushes. Because God gave the word to the illiterate first. And we carried it whole in our hearts. Because our prophet is known as an-nabiyy ul-umiyy - the unlettered prophet - the motherly prophet. Our language contains multitudes of meanings in the tripartite roots of its words, and he carried all of them.
Writing came to me the way my nighttime litany did: it was always there. I mine a well of water that has already seen the sun. Writing came to me fully formed, something that has always existed. My childhood memories are at once stolen (not my memories, but my mother narrating them to me as I fell asleep), and also mine, because they are our shared memory of heaven.
Yes, that was not my childhood, but in my prayers I am moved to remember that I am not really “I”. Can I own her signature? Can I own anything at all? Writing came to me as something that was not mine, but am I mine? because we are never not in one another.
The moment is now: I am writing this for you to read and I tell my mother which of her memories I have chosen. She left me a message late last night with her corrections and reflections, and I listen to it now as I make my tea; cardamom tea in a cup that still smells of coffee. I know that this now moment is the realest, ‘truest’ thing I will write here. She tells me that the memory of the signature is vague, not as I imagined it, and I wonder why I brought together the plaiting of mama’s hair and her bibi’s signature. Also the signature was not handed over but taken, on another occasion, not morning time but later in the day. And her grandmother always had a plate of fruit in her room, to share with anyone who came in, and a small knife at the ready to cut the fruit. The signature was done freely, over and over in what could be mistaken for a child’s handwriting and then left somewhere, absentmindedly. But my mother took it. The memory itself is vague but the signature is clear. And this is what is true here: that we are always negotiating, pushing and pulling, prodding and adjusting, opening and closing, and asking ‘whose memories are these, whose stories are those, am I a thief’? How can they be written? And in the writing, have they then not already been read? My mother says she found what I wrote beautiful but stilted, but still I decide not to change anything, because I think this is what I wanted to say, that I cannot write about ‘i’ without writing about the first word, about her, and her and her and all of us, and him – the unlettered prophet.
What does it mean to die unlettered and then be re-membered and preserved in the writing of your grandchildren, or great-grandchildren?
I swim in the oceans of two alphabets, searching for the gaps, seeking the valley south of the twin rivers.
'Wherever you go, there you are!'
At the top of a mountain in northern New Mexico, you enter the spring. Squatted on your haunches at the threshold, there are two sweet elders at your back. Between you, you preserve a holy silence. They pass you a gallon sized glass jar, you immerse it completely in the darkness of the clear sweet water – which only trickles over the edge of the step you are sat on, in this time of drought. The stone is green and slick with moss, an ancient marker of the Threshold. Fill the vessel until it is full and drown your hands, from your wrists to your fingertips. Cool silence, the swaying of the water. From one vessel, four others are filled. Baraka. Baraka reminds you of how the Prophet could make milk appear from his fingertips before the eyes of hungry children. With this in mind, you walk back down the mountain, three women carrying water with your skirts hiked up above your knees, in silence.
Women carrying water. It is a trope for a reason. Women who were our grandmothers, walking various distances with perfect balance, saving every drop. Walking like messengers, bearers of a sacred sign which falls from cloudy skies. The way holy books and holy people do tend to descend, too: miraculously, after much supplication. I want all of my moments to be just like that, that tender ritual, that sanctified receiving.
I grieve this silence when I arrive in Istanbul... Everything in my being resisting the cacophany and the speed of this new city. When the call to prayer for fajr billows out on my night of arrival, I am humbled again. This is my first time in almost three years hearing the adhan loud and unapolagetic like this.
Wherever you go, there you are! This saying keeps surfacing in my mind at moments like this, those moments when I am able to really laugh at myself! Wherever you go there is (also) the face of Allah. There it is, in the overwhelming voice of the caller who calls out the prayer, and in the indescribable silence of the mountain. There is a connection between the 'you' that is found everywhere, and your Creator, who is also found everywhere. This refrain – Wherever you go, there you are! – is about the self, the ego, but it is also, somehow, about water. Water, which is intrinsically connected to the earth and yet is not 'native' to any one land. Its liquidity and its reliance on the One Source transcends and transgresses all borders and manmade constructions.
The weeping scent of rain on dry earth is the smell of home, regardless of where it falls.
Anywhere you find the sea, it will always carry the horizon on its back. There is some solace in that, surely.