Source: The Red Palace
The Red Palace
From the East to the West, do not our laments reach your ears?
Can you not feel how we yearn, for the glory of past years?
On your hilltop resting place, you are privy to all
Did you even shed a tear, at your makers fall?
Or did you watch indifferently, knowing that before long
Your maker would be all but forgotten, and you immortalised in song?
Changing sounds echo within your walls, from the azaan to church bells
Yet those famous red walls , continue to cast the same spell
Your admirers visit from far and wide, hoping to learn why
Those now scrambling at the bottom, could have once built so high
I admit I am no different, I too sought what you hide
I wanted to know myself, through the stories trapped inside
Stories, written on your mosaic walls, told by the gurgle of your fountains
Stories of the tragedy of love and power, like you, built on top of this mountain
As you graciously reveal all to me, I do have one complaint
They call you the red palace, but are you only as true as a coat of point?
Your label does not make you, and neither does mine make me
Yet you kept this secret hidden away, you did not set me free
Instead I wandered in a daze, in wonder at our past glory
But what does this castle on a hill, have to do with my story?
Why lament for what was never mine, however much its worth
When I lament for the One to whom belongs, the heavens and the earth
He walked and walked and walked. Then he walked some more. He walked until his feet ached and blistered. He walked until his skin began to itch and redden from over exposure to the sun. He walked until the dust covered his entire body, like a new layer of skin. He walked until he forgot what it was like to not walk.
Then it was dark, and he lay down. He lay on the cold metal floor of a container, curled up alongside many others. He lay until his muscles cried out to be stretched. He lay until the container was filled with the stench of human bodily fluids. He lay until the darkness consumed him, convincing him that light was only an illusion created in his mind.
Then he saw light, and he believed again. Then he was on a boat, and he began to row. He rowed till his muscles began to seize and the blisters on his hands had calloused. He rowed until he forgot what land looked like.
Then it rained. It rained like he had never seen it rain before. It rained till his nose and mouth filled with water and he felt like his very soul had been drenched. It rained until he forgot what it felt like to be dry. It rained until he did not know whether tears or rainwater streamed down his face as he thought of what, and who he had left behind. It rained until his boat stopped being a boat, but pieces of wood barely held together, and then not held together at all.
Then he swam. He swam until he all he could see, hear or taste was the ocean. He swam until every fibre in his body was screaming at him to stop. He swam because he had to. He swam until he was swimming alone. He swam until he forgot why he had legs, not flippers.
Then he stopped swimming. He closed his eyes, and embraced the water below. Asking her to wash everything away: the pain, the fear, the horror.
Then he dreamt. He dreamt of the smiles of his children, the tears of his wife. He dreamt of burning houses and bullet ridden cars. He dreamt he was swimming again, this time in an ocean of blood. He dreamt of seeing his destination ahead of him. Sky high golden gates, opening to a land of peace and prosperity. Angels with shining faces beckoned him in. As he drew closer, he became blinded by the light emanating from inside the gates. He stumbled around blindly, falling back into the sea of blood. He was drowning again. This time, someone pulled him out. Then he was awake.
He coughed. He coughed till his mouth filled with blood. He coughed until his lungs were free of water. Then he coughed some more. When he was finished coughing, he was pulled to his feet and led away by 2 policemen.
He arrived. Then he cried. He cried because he had walked. He cried because he had lain. He cried because he had rowed. He cried because it had rained. He cried because he had swum. He cried because he had drowned. He cried because he had dreamt. He cried because he had arrived. He cried because of the crowds that greeted him with signs reading “SAY NO TO ILLEGAL MIGRANTS”. He cried because the guards at border control were not Angels with shining faces. He cried because nothing is more painful than false hope.
Then he was grateful. He was grateful because he was alive.
A wise man was asked, what is Freedom? His reply was thus.
Freedom is the gust of dry wind that takes with it some grains of sands from the vast desert, settling them far and wide.
Freedom is the waves of the sea; sometimes gentle and melancholic, sometimes violent and surging.
Freedom is the flame that burns without abandon, expanding recklessly to satiate its limitless appetite.
Freedom is the blissful sleep of the traveller under the starry night sky, filled with dreams of wonder.
The old man paused here. Thinking he had finished, the audience began to applause vigorously, clearly enjoying what the man spoke. Yet he merely frowned, and continued.
The wind only blows with His permission.
The movement of the waves is as He wills.
He alone kindles the flame.
He puts at ease, the heart of a traveller that he may sleep.
Confused, the audience asked the old man.
Does Freedom not mean independence?
The old man shook his head and replied
Slavery is in the nature of man.
The king is slave to his hunger for power.
The knight, slave to his battle lust.
The crook, a slave to his greed.
The adulterer, a slave to his desires.
These men may be unchained , yet they are not free. I have spent most of my life bound in chains, yet I have always been free.
When faced with quizzical looks, he continued.
I take orders only from the master of the wind and the waves.
Like them I move by His permission alone.
Freedom is to know who your real Master is.
He who learns this, will never be enslaved.
Like the audience in this story, I believe that most of us do not really appreciate what freedom is. We use the word ‘freedom’ a lot in society. Usually in the context of ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘freedom of belief’ or one of the many other types of freedom that a liberal society affords. But have we fundamentally misunderstood this word? We have started to view freedom in a superficial way, purely related to our external state. What we are allowed to say, where we are allowed to go, what we are allowed to do. These ‘rights’ have become what we mean by freedom. Yet in reality, how much do we actually do by our own will? To what extent are we a slave to societal norms, strategic advertising campaigns, or even our own desires?
The occupied Palestinian lands are the last place I expected to find the answer to this question. What would a people that have been under the yoke of Israeli rule for nearly 60 years know about Freedom? It turns out, everything.
My friend told me about one Palestinian man that he spoke to. In conversation with him, my friend made a casual prayer ‘May God help those who are Oppressed’. The man cut him short to reply, “We are not the ones who are oppressed, they(the Israelis) are. Those who wrong others cause harm to themselves more than anyone.” It is truly incredible; to think about the degree of faith it takes to think about your enemies in this way. For me, this is the essence of freedom, which I saw inside each and every Palestinian that I came across.
It lives in the beautiful smiles of the children who offered us sweets and blessings of peace, children who have grown up under the constant scrutiny of heavily armed guards. It lives in the generosity of the scores of Palestinians that invited us to their homes to break bread, when so many of them scarcely have enough to feed their families. It lives in heart of the young man who, having just walked a perilous 8 miles under the cover of the night for the chance to pray at the sacred mosque, had enough room in his heart to welcome us to his homeland with a round of crepes from ones of the local vendors. It is intertwined into the fabric of their society, their hospitality, their perseverance, their thankfulness. Occupation has not made them lose who they are, it has accentuated it. The Israelis can continue to build walls, set up checkpoints, deny people travel, and force them into refugee camps. Yet the more space they take away from the Palestinians, the freer they become.
I witnessed an expression of this freedom first-hand, when a group of Palestinians started chanting slogans in the Al Aqsa compound after the afternoon prayers. Cries of ‘Hurriyah’ (Freedom) echoed around the compound as the crowd continued to swell. The atmosphere was electric, men, women and children united in slogans that reflected the pride and resilience of this nation. As I scanned the faces around the crowd, I noticed a congruity in their expressions. Resolute and hopeful, bearing a burden of the years endured, yet no signs of any abatement in their capacity to continue fighting.
These people, who have been prisoners in their own land for over 60 years, have a lot to teach us about freedom. As the elderly Palestinian gentleman made clear to my friend, they are NOT oppressed. Oppression is what I see on the faces of those that squeeze themselves like sardines into a carriage on the London Underground every morning. The world is our oyster, yet here we are; being dragged tortuously along by the chains of necessity. A train carriage filled with frowns, scowls and droopy eyelids. Then I think back to the open prison that is Ramallah. All I can remember is the smiles of the children that wanted their picture taken, the heartfelt gratitude of the elderly women whom we handed out relief donations to and the enduring spirit of hospitality amongst a community that have been long deprived of their true homes.
Over the last couple of days, pictures have been circulating of heavily armed Israeli police breaching the Al Aqsa compound, being confronted by Palestinian youths armed only with stones and fireworks. A handful of adolescents defending the 3rd holiest site of my religion against one of the world’s military powers; whilst I sit here cosy in the suburbs of South London. Yet I have the audacity to call THEM oppressed?
Some say that the first step in any endeavour is always the hardest. Whoever said that clearly did not get past the first step. We may resolve ourselves to climb a mountain, yet during the climb we are constantly faced with the same decision, whether to give in to gravity or to keep fighting it. Taking the analogy one step further, reaching the top is exhilarating yet it is only once you reach the top that you get a bird’s eye view of the journey before you.
A few months ago, I posted on this blog regarding my commitment to taking up writing once more, returning to one of my keenest hobbies growing up. While I have been writing fairly regularly in my spare time since then, time permitting; this is only the second piece of writing that I have chosen to share online. Why? I do not quite know myself. It could be the fear of arrogance; to begin feeling that my opinions inherently deserved the ear of the online community. It could just as likely be my busy schedule, making the transition from university to working life. Whatever it was, it gave me plenty of time to reflect. Most of the concerns I had were regarding my interactions with other people. How would they see me? Would their support inflate my ego? Would negative responses anger me? These are thoughts that often go through people’s heads when they are about to embark on a new project, or make a major life decision. It therefore made me think about how much we are influenced by what others think, especially in terms of craving approval from others.
As social animals, the approval of the herd is something we all crave. According to research (1) , for many people the area of our brains associated with reward is more active when others agree with and reinforce our opinions. Psychologists DeWall and Bushman speculate that this could be because belonging to a group was necessary for our ancestors to survive in harsh conditions. (2) This desire to be part of the ‘group’ is so ingrained , DeWall mentions that social rejection can actually lead to poor physical health/ Whatever the evolutionary reason, this is flawed thinking if you want to truly chase your dreams. Judging your life choices by the metrics that other people set is both illogical and harmful to your own well being.
Yet history is populated with the examples of those who could rise above this need to belong, and to be approved of. Albert Einstein put it well ; ‘Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary’. Socrates’s intellectual non-conformity with the people of Athens and his constant critique of their social norms led to him being branded an outcast, and eventually paying the ultimate price for his intellectual freedom from the orthodoxy. When the Prophet Muhammad(S) initially began to preach reformation of belief and practice to his society, he was shunned by all save a few. How would the course of history have been changed had this small group of people not had the moral courage to hold on their beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposition from their peers? Looking to more modern times, and at seemingly contrasting personalities such as Gandhi, Einstein, Steve Jobs, J.K Rowling and even Malala Yusufzai. This eclectic mix of people has little in common, save a stubborn belief in themselves and their work, regardless of whether their society believed along with them.
It seems that a common trait in the great leaders of the past is an ability in ourselves to ‘detach’ themselves from the herd, from time to time. Sometimes we can get too caught up in the opinions of other people, and allow it to affect our own confidence in what we do. When you make a decision, you make it for ‘YOURSELF’.. This means that the decision is not being made in the light of what others may think of you, to raise your standing in society or to seek approval from those around you. To consciously be making each and every choice for your own self-fulfillment, your own betterment as an individual; and in the case for my fellow believers for the pleasure of God. Embrace this way of thinking and marvel at the positive impact it will have on those around you. “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
When I speak about self-fulfillment I do not mean self serving greed, or the unending pursuit of personal material gain. For what is the purpose of enriching oneself, but to maintain a lifestyle which others envy? Financial and material excess is ALL about other people: impressing them, WOW-ing them, influencing them etc. Remove these people from the picture. Eliminate them as influencing variables, replacing them with purely what drives YOU. “The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.” –Virginia Wolf.
The right of being involved in your decisions should not be accorded to everyone. Only those who will share in the consequences of your decisions, or a few sincere well-wishers deserve this right. The more and more people you allow to influence you in this regard, the more likely you are to become burdened with the opinions of others, to the point where you do not feel any confidence in your own decisions any more. Going against convention can be scary, and sometimes we do need to satisfy our innate need for approval from others, to give us the strength to follow through. Sometimes it can feel like there is no way around this, the fear of any kind of rejection can often paralyse us, not allowing our dreams to come to life. Looking to those hugely successful people who appear to have an unlimited reserve of inner strength to draw on. Much like Excalibur or the sword of Godric Gryffindor which are available only to the deserving, this inner strength appears to be available only to a select few. Whether it is their firm conviction in the importance of what they are doing, or their sincerity and desire to improve the lives of others, there is something that makes these people stand out.
What stands in our way from joining this elite group of people that have made a difference in the world in some way? There is no magic formula which they had access too, some of them were given set of circumstances which most would not consider conducive to success. There is an important lesson here, that the power to change our own lives lies solely in our hands, and it is intrinsically linked to the decisions we make on a regular basis. Discovering what truly makes you happy, the values and belief system that truly resonate with you; this is all an important part of our journey. However it is only the first step. It is only when we can use these as the basis for our decision making can we, in my opinion, begin to draw on that inner strength and develop an unshakeable confidence in what we do.
This is the direction which my thoughts have taken me in, though each individual’s experiences will have led them to different conclusions. I welcome different opinions about this, whether you have previously struggled to find self-belief in a project, felt the pressure to conform, or are one of those extremely focused individuals with the ability to drown out all the background noise, please do let me know what you think!
Thank you all for reading and God bless you.
1. How the Opinion of Others Affects Our Valuation of Objects’.(K.Campbell-Meiklejohn et all). Current Biology Volume 20 issue 13, p 1165-1170.
So here I am. Applying for Jobs that I do not really want, building up this mythical image of myself using as many ‘buzzwords’ as humanly possible in the desperate hope that some poor gullible company will be the unsuspecting fly to my devious web of words such as ‘driven’ and ‘innovative’.
Along with millions of other graduates across the UK, I am taking the first tentative steps into the rat race. As collectively a generation of graduates moan and groan about the ills of the entire application process, parallels can be already drawn with people 20 years into their career moaning about the soporific nature of their work. Are we unknowingly being carried along by the strong currents of uniformity? By the time we are washed ashore will we just be cogs in the well oiled machinery of another money making entity? Or am I being too pessimistic, am I actually on the cusp of a life changing position that will serve as a stepping stone for greater things. There is no way to know for sure, but one thing I do know is that I feel I am taking the coward’s way out.
Had you asked me when I was 12 years old what I wanted to be, I would have instantly told you “a writer!”. Inspired by Tolkien and Rowling, C.S.Lewis and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alike, I wanted nothing more than to be part of the next generation of story tellers sharing the workings of their wonderful minds with gleeful bookworms across the planet. Now you may put this down to youthful exuberance, and point to the swathes of unrealised Astronauts, Professional Athletes and Supreme Commanders of the Universe. But maybe that’s a generation of Astronauts , Athletes and leaders!? that we have missed out on to our detriment! Obviously all children have wishful dreams, but some of them (mine included) continue buzzing around your heart like a persistent fly attracted to a pile of steaming shit. We swat and swat trying to get rid of this pesky bug as we grow up and begin to realise what a difficult path it is beseeching us to follow. A path of uncertainty , of fleeting successes interspersed with crushing failures and rejections. Faced with the opportunity of a vocational degree leading to a relatively comfortable job, who can really claim to have had the courage to follow this dream? Maybe 1 in 100. So a generation of brilliant artists , entrepreneurs and dreamers is replaced by a horde of mediocre engineers , lawyers and doctors.
Is there any point to saying all this? All I have really said is most people don’t have the courage to do what they really want to do, in the face of what they are ‘expected’ to do. Nothing particularly groundbreaking. I guess I am just expressing what has been on my mind for a while, the gnawing feeling that despite being content with where I am in life right now, there is a part of me that has been missing for a long time. The process of job applications has led to some serious self reflection about my future. Whilst I am still unsure about 99% of it, the 1% of certainty is that the part of me feeling discontent was the inner writer in me crying out to be exercised. He has been confined to a cell in the deepest recesses of my inner mind for several years, growing bloated and lethargic, 2 prison guards “Fear” and “Procrastination” standing watch diligently. I suppose this blog could be best described as a jailbreak attempt of sorts. I am tired of being afraid; afraid that my writing is not good enough or that I could be spending this time doing something more productive, and tired of telling myself I will start writing soon, after my exams, after I graduate, once I am financially stable. There is an ocean of excuses out there, and every person has the choice to accept his fate and drown, or to try and swim frantically for their life in hope that they will come across an Island soon. (I just realised I use way too many metaphors).
So while I most definitely have loved my time studying electrical engineering and am not going to undertake any radical career changes overnight, I have come to the realisation I cannot neglect my childhood dreams any longer. Whatever form it takes, whatever meagre audience it reaches, however terrible it is, I want to start writing again. In other words , to paraphrase Robert Frost, I want to take the road less traveled by. Here’s to hoping it makes all the difference.