In answer to a question to the panel…
My father was white but my mother was brown. Their differences didn’t end there. I knew the story of how they came to be together, but I think there was a part of me that never quite believed it. It made no sense to me; didn’t follow any recognisable beats and I always suspected – and still do – that there were details they chose to leave out of the narrative. I suppose, if I put my mind to it, I could probably fill in the gaps. My father was an academic, and well known within his circles. He wrote memoirs too though I confess I could never bear to read them. Literally too close to home. This is the skeleton of it though: he belonged to the rolling hills of the Home Counties. English parkland, dreary skies, windswept grey beaches for summer holidays. He didn’t come from wealth, but he did come from education and a certain kind of middle-class privilege. He was the kind of man who would never even think to question his place in the world. I spent many years resenting him.
My mother was from Oman, a unique place. Aching blue skies and hot desert winds. She came to Britain in the 70s, and I can’t begin to imagine what she must have made of this place. She was demure and traditional and for a long time I despised her for what I perceived as weakness in the face of my father’s bullying. Is it any wonder I became the woman that I did? They were not cruel to me and, I understand now, not to each other either – they were just products of the times and places in which they had grown up, and is that not true of us all? You cannot hate a person for what they are, only for what they do, and even then I would not advise it. I spent a long time being ruled by this negativity, by defining myself in terms of what did not satisfy me. It is a hard way to live.
I have many strong memories of my father. Memories I’ve replayed in my head so many times that they’re more like scenes from a movie, and which I now stand on the outside of, observing myself from an objective distance. More lies; our life and our memories of it are just a mosaic of the stories that we tell. Recall is necessarily imperfect – don’t you think it would be awful to be able to look back with perfect clarity, our pasts shorn of all the comforting smoothing over our brains unconsciously provide? But anyway, whatever the exact truth of this event from my childhood, my version of it is very vivid. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was, but I know it was during the Month of Fasting, and that I was young enough to be considered exempt. In truth I had been largely sheltered from my mother’s beliefs, only picking up pieces here and there from her conversations; an eavesdropper on my own heritage. My father, needless to say, had no interest in it at all. I found this confusing, and I asked him about it as he worked in his study. He looked over his glasses at me and put his pen down. He always worked on paper and never owned a computer.
“Your mother has certain beliefs, and those beliefs demand that, at certain times of the year, she does strange things.” Even at that age, her observance of Ramadan seemed no stranger than putting up the Christmas tree. I don’t think I said that though. He was only too happy to expound. “Your mother has that strange human habit of believing in magic and fairies.”
Do you see now why I resented him for so long? What kind of parent tries to discourage his child’s interest in the supernatural by comparing it to magic? But he never thought like that. For a man lauded by the world as a writer and thinker of ferocious and towering intellect, he could be remarkably blind to certain things. And, unwittingly, he planted an idea in my head that laid deep, powerful roots.
It’s rightly considered reductive in the extreme to dismiss deeply-held beliefs as mere magic. Magic is, as my father had made clear, a silly thing for children. Magic is party tricks and wizard’s hats. But there is a deeper meaning to the term and, though he was only sarcastically groping at it to score political points with a girl who didn’t even understand why the two monolithic presences of her life had different eating habits one month out of the year, he had hit on an ancient connection. Magic and religion are deeply interwoven. Only much later associations between the former and witchcraft in the medieval era divorced them in the common mind. Magic is an expression of the uncanny, the times when our experience of the world defies the careful narrative we construct. It means wonder and exultation; irrational fear and intense, visceral hatred. Magic is both inhuman and deeply human. Though it took me years to fully articulate this, I had begun to feel around the edges of understanding.
Let me tell you of the times in my life when I believe I have experienced true magic, which is to say the times when the ordinary world around us intersected with the unseen realm of the human imagination. There have been many, many such occasions, but there are three that resonate most strongly with me, and I believe that they helped to form the core of my personal identity.
I was fourteen. Still a child, really, but precocious. Well, I had been well-educated, and inherited a powerful enquiring mind, from both parents. I was sensitive too. Inevitably, I had encountered cruelty in my life. The kind of school I went to was not one that traditionally welcomed people who looked like me. There were more brown faces in those old, musty classrooms than there had been a decade before, but still not enough. I had grown up blissfully unaware of how different I was until I came to that school. It was difficult, but this comes as no surprise to you, I’m certain. Why then, I have often wondered, did I fear to leave so much? Because that was the news I was presented with one autumnal morning. We were moving, leaving the town we had lived in all my life so far, going to some other corner of this damp island. I suppose, looking back, the information numbed me, for I don’t recall saying anything. I walked out of the house, I know that, out into the fields that more or less surrounded us and away towards the woods. It was a cold, blustery day, but there was a glimmer of pale light along the horizon. The air smelled of woodsmoke. The woods were mostly beech, I think (I haven’t been back, not since we left) and the leaves had already turned orange. I don’t think I was intending to go anywhere though, in that childish way of teenagers, I suppose I was thinking about never coming back, even though that was exactly what I was running from. Strange how we always imagine our decisions to be bound by rationality, and yet in hindsight we can easily see the erroneous assumptions we have made.
I had never felt connected with the place that I lived, at least not since I’d begun school, and can one be considered truly cognisant before that? I was so aware that I was different, and aware that my mother was different. My father was normal. He was white and respected by peers and strangers alike. He was a paragon of normality, though I now realise how flawed that assumption was too – there was nothing at all ordinary about our privileged life – while we were the strange exceptions to the natural order. My idea of home was confused. When my mother spoke of home, except in the everyday way of returning from a day out, she meant Oman. I had never been, but I had a firm image in my head. I had relatives there, who sent letters, and I’d seen many photographs. The idea of the place was fixed for me. Was that where I belonged?
It was walking in the woods, as the brown and orange leaves drifted down around me, carpeting the floor so that my shoes crunched as I walked, that I had what could be described as a transcendental experience. I was an unruly adolescent. I had no respect for nature, no poetry in my soul. But as I climbed the slight rise into the deeper forest and I saw the beautiful colour of the foliage I was momentarily awed. I turned on the spot, taking in the sweep of the treeline down to the edge of the fields which bordered our little garden. I could see it all from there, the familiar snug cradle of my childhood. I had been up in those woods a hundred times, but I’d never seen them like this before. It was a profound moment for me. I realised then how much I feared leaving. How, despite always feeling like an outsider, this place was my home. And I’d never see it again. I knew that, somehow. I gazed up at the trees. Autumn in Britain is such a strange thing. This island’s climate it so unreliable, that some years it hardly seems to come at all. Summer might linger for months longer than it should, and the changing of the leaves comes in a flash just ahead of the frost of winter. Or, more often, the weather is so foul that everything seems to turn to brown and grey mush, and the land simply dies, drably and depressingly. But, once in a while, you have an autumn like this one: with colours like bright fire against the grey sky and the scents of hearth and home on the breeze. Only half my blood may call out for this, but there is something inside me that longs for days like that one. I don’t know if I knew where we were moving to, but I felt distraught that I’d never see these woods at this time of year again. Isn’t autumn so much better than spring? Spring is achingly slow, each plant flowering at its own stately pace, starting with the cheery daffodils who shake their yellow heads in the rain. It never seems to get going. Autumn is when this country shines, if it shines at all. So, I was a young brown girl, a stranger in her own land as they say, stood on a hill surrounded by drifting beech leaves and I burst into tears. That unexpected intersection was surely a kind of magic, wouldn’t you agree? There are people living in this country, even now, who would say that I do not belong here. My father is as English as them – more so, arguably – and I was born and raised here. But my faith and my skin, inherited from my mother, would be enough. And yet I cried to leave behind a house that had sheltered me in the heart of the British countryside. Why should I mourn that which purported to despise me?
Ten years later, I had my next experience of magic. By that time I had all but abandoned my father and his people. My people, I should say, though at the time I certainly didn’t feel that way. I had buried my mother a year before and I supposed it was to honour her that I undertook the Hajj and journeyed to Mecca. I had embraced the faith in which I had been raised and in particular my mother’s branch of it, Ibadi Islam. The subtle differences in doctrine are of little interest to an outsider, but in rebellion against my father’s long-held prejudice I had immersed myself body and soul into its teachings. Like many Muslims, I aspired to the status of Hafiza and it was my full intention to take my academic studies in that direction. This pilgrimage would be the beginning of that. The journey and Mecca itself occupies a strange place in my memory, for it was as if I existed in an altered state. Islam has a word for this concept, as it does for much else – Ihram, the spiritual state that must be entered prior to undertaking the Hajj. They were strange days. I had, by this time, been fortunate enough to travel more than I did as a child. I’d been to Oman to meet my mother’s family, and to places with which I had no previous connection – Pakistan and India, America, many places in Europe. This was something different though. I was lost in the dust of the desert, in the sweltering humidity and unforgiving blaze of white-hot sky. And the people. So many people, from so many different places. Islam is the most diversely practiced faith in the world. I saw followers from South-East Asia and Africa, and more white faces than you might imagine, but most were more like me. In Britain I had been an alien. Here, we were all aliens, but united by our belief and our respect for what we had come to see.
You’ll have seen the time-lapse videos of the Kabba during Tawaf, I’m sure. Even these do not capture the experience. The great mass of humanity, united in a single act of devotion, is quite wondrous. To look upon the vast crowds as they circle the Kabba, a great shifting cartwheel of bodies dressed in white, is to understand how we once stumbled from the savannah and began to craft civilisation. In the West, they wonder at how the people of the ancient world were able to create the majestic and colossal structures that have withstood the scouring of the desert winds for so many centuries. It is no mystery to me. I have seen how people, united in one purpose, can create order from chaos. These people, hailing from a hundred or more different nations, all living thousands of different lives, were today paying obeisance to God in the same way. I don’t know if I thought back to that day in the beech wood then, in grey, tiny England – I suspect nothing was further from my mind – but I now recognise the same emotion that I felt then. Awe. And a sudden understanding of the uncanny and unexpected. For, as my heart soared at the knowledge that I had completed my journey, I met the eyes of another pilgrim standing close by, a young woman like me and my breath caught in my throat. I had known I was gay since I’d become aware that such a thing was a possibility but, like many adherents to religions rooted in ancient traditions, I struggled to reconcile what I knew to be true within myself to what I thought was true about the universe. It is not so hard as people imagine. Islam is more open to interpretation than those outside the faith believe. There are gay Muslims, just as there are gay Christians, gay Jews, gay Hindus, Sikhs, Atheists and everything else under the sun. And, for Muslims, the decision of how to address one’s feelings is as personal as their relationship to God. That is not to say tradition plays no part, but the faith itself is not to blame. Islam is both as tolerant and intolerant as the people that practice it. When you speak of homophobia in Islam, you must in the same breath speak of sexism, after all, and that is a topic with which I am very familiar.
But to deny that there is pressure to conform would also be reductive. On that day, I stood with perhaps a hundred thousand other people in the very act of conforming. Conforming was the whole purpose, as I had just marvelled at, and yet I felt the electricity between myself and this mystery woman. She was North African I judged, with smooth, youthful skin and piercing dark eyes. Her lips were perfect and pouting and her nose was broad and shapely. She was the most beautiful human being I had ever seen. Like me, she was dressed demurely in hijab, but we could not look away from one another. I understood then the concept of love at first sight. To be moved by this desire, in the holiest place on Earth, was both unsettling and, oddly perfect. Indeed, the very definition of magic. I felt my path here had been ordained by God and that meeting this woman here was not some coincidence. Do I still believe that? I don’t know. It is unimportant. I summoned the courage to introduce myself to her and we were inseparable during our time in Mecca. We parted afterwards, but not for long. You know her now as my wife, my one true love. What could be more magical than that? I will tell you.
I understand well the human compulsion to reproduce. It is never questioned, for almost all of us feel the tug of our biology at some point in our lives. But it is born of the need to pass on one’s DNA to a new generation. Men like my father have explained the mechanism in dismissive terms, seeking to diminish its majesty. ‘The selfish gene’ they call it. How sad to reduce a miracle of evolution to such a bald statement of malevolent intent. These things, I know, are intended to challenge the established order, to repudiate the beliefs of those who see the hand of God in our creation. Strange how they argue so vehemently for beauty in the orderliness of a scientific understating in the natural world, and yet simultaneously reject possible synergy with religious thought. They are not so at odds, as most truly wise people know. I do not know if I count myself in that, but I do know that, for me, the scientific and the miraculous are not mutually exclusive.
Knowing whence this desire for offspring comes made it no easier to bear. I longed for a child of my own, and there were many possibilities open to us. In our home, my wife and I weighed up our options. Most obvious was sperm donation, then at least one of us could carry the child to term. But this had its problems. First, the child would only belong to one of us, biologically, and choosing which was an impossible obstacle. Secondly, neither of us felt comfortable using some anonymous donor, but we equally did not want to invite a man into our lives. Don’t mistake me – I love and esteem many men, but this was a very different situation. In the end, we decided that our child must be both of us or none, and we elected to pursue adoption. This was not an easy decision. I think, for my wife, it wasn’t such a problem, for it I was I who instigated the discussion, though she admitted it had been on her mind too. She did not feel the genetic pull that I did. I wanted to create new life. I was driven by a powerful natural urge. Adoption would not satisfy that urge. Such a child would not be mine. That was what I believed, though I kept it very secret throughout the process, to my shame. I wanted the moment I’d read about, the instant jolt of recognition as I held a newborn in my arms, knowing that she was the product of my own body, a tiny miracle in flesh. I didn’t know how I would feel about a child born of another mother.
The process of adoption is a long and complex one. I won’t bore you with the details, just tell you the story of the moment of magic I alluded to. We had been matched with a likely candidate for adoption some weeks before, but this was the fateful day of the meeting. Ominously, it was a grey, overcast day. Many things went through my head as I held my wife’s hand tightly and we walked through the glass doors, into a worryingly antiseptic waiting area. Did I think of our first meeting in Al-Hejaz, more than a decade ago? Did I remember the emotional day when I had learned I had to leave my childhood home? Probably not. Only now, much later, do I connect these three moments together in my mind. I wrung my hands incessantly. The classic worried mother. I had no concern at all for how we must appear, two obviously Muslim women in hijab, clearly partners, meeting their prospective adoptive child, a white toddler, for the first time. Such a thing is the cause of palpitations for Middle England, or so the press might have you believe! I think people are more tolerant in the flesh that some give them credit for. Certainly here they only wanted to give the children to parents who would love them with all of their hearts. I wish I had known for certain then that I would. I was still scared that I would miss out on the moment I had dreamed of for so long.
I needn’t have worried. I had fallen in love once, in Mecca, and now I did so again. I met my daughter on that day, and I knew instantly that that’s who and what she was. How do I explain it? I can’t. Some things transcend human experience. She was such a precious little thing, quiet and serious, intelligent and graceful. She played attentively with some toy or other as we entered, but the bond between the three of us was somehow, inexplicably, magically, instantaneous. There was no question that she would be ours. It was a perfect meeting. As we emerged from the centre – still just the two of us, for there were more administrative hoops to jump through and this was just a first meeting – the sun seemed to be shining. I don’t know if it was. I don’t remember. I was in a daze. I had been told the reason that a parent loves their child is because of the biological bond, as if they are some parasite you have no choice but to blindly adore, but now I knew that was a lie. We were living proof of that now, our nascent family. When I walked into that building I had no daughter; when I came out, I did. It was as simple as that. Is that not magic? Well what else would you call it?
So. I don’t know if that answers your question. It is probably more than you expected, but you asked me something more complex than you thought, I suspect. How do I reconcile my life as an academic – as a feminist and a gay rights campaigner – with my faith? By acknowledging that the human experience is not so neatly enfolded in a set of –isms. By accepting the ancient belief in magic as an explanation for the uncanny. How can I speak of women’s freedom while wearing the hijab? Because I have been simultaneously an alien and a native in this land. Because I have experienced divine providence that had led me into the bed of another woman. And because I have loved a child I had never laid eyes upon before as if she were my own flesh. These are not unique experiences by any means, and I think that is why the belief in the unseen is so universal, despite all attempts to stamp it out, well-meaning or otherwise, by men like my father. We feel, on some level, that there are things we cannot explain and no scientific approach can encompass all of the human experience. And that, my friend, is as comprehensive an answer as you are likely to get from anyone on this panel today.