Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Muslim Christmas

Since turning Muslim some 15-odd years ago, my two non-disabled children have grown up aware of both my Islam and school-assembly Christianity, but neither have embraced anything more than a desire to fit in with their friends. Meanwhile, my din has ricocheted from Salafism to near extinction through an increasingly progressive ahl as-Sunnah wa Jamaat to its present Ibn Arabiesque pietism. Consistent through this, however, has been my wife and children’s celebration of Christmas, through which my own way weaves and wonders and reflects.

Now the kids are all teenagers, my participation in the family yuletide festivities is marginal and perfunctory. The closest I come to inculcating myself with the contemporary spirit of Christmas is by shopping – buying presents for my wife, a lapsed Catholic whose birthday falls perilously close to the 25th, and for my autistic son, Joel, whose awareness of Christmas has blossomed in the last few years.

Shopping for Joel usually involves a trip to nearby Leeds, and this year was no different. Even though I disapprove of consumerism, I enjoy city centres in the days leading up to Christmas. Perhaps the mesmerising buzz of humanity packed shoulder to shoulder evokes something of the spirit of Hajj in these secular folk, with the homeless Big Issue vendors in Santa hats standing patiently like unseen angels while punters throng past in search of the latest bargain gift. Perhaps not.

After Leeds I take a train to Dewsbury, a once thriving centre of the woollen mill industry and the home of ‘shoddy’ cloth, and then a short taxi ride to Darul Kutub. This is where I shop for my own present on behalf of my nominally Christian spouse, which is then delivered to her to be blessed with holy wrapping paper and gift tag in preparation for the Noël ritual present opening.

Tucked around the corner from the European HQ for Tablighi-i-Jamaat, set flatly on the small flood plain surrounding the nearby Calder, Darul Kutub is a culture away from the homogenous city stores where the human soul struggles to breath under the hegemonic weight of acquisitive anxiety.

Yet in spite of its proximity to Tablighi's Western heart, or perhaps in keeping with it, Darul Kutub’s floor space is extremely modest, its cross-wooded window frontage no different from the many out-of-town family retailers struggling to hold back the rush of car-crazed, logo-centric shoppers to the malls.

Perhaps its very humility explains why crossing the threshold of Darul Kutub is a truly Narnian experience. It’s corner door is a veritable portal to a tiny cloister chock with resinous perfumes, robes, colours, Qur’ans, topies, children’s books, and wondrous discoveries –a new series of children’s board games about mosques and Hajj and other Islamic themes, and a two volume collection of Quran stories which I purchased. I was the only customer present in the half hour I was there, though the time flashed past in what seemed like a transforming moment.

My attachment to local Muslim communities is largely romantic. I know a great deal about British South Asian Muslim life from academic research – Anwar, Geaves, Werbner - but my deeply ingrained liberal humanism would never allow me to integrate into a community where hierarchical religious norms are so strong. I therefore always remain the apologetic cultural tourist, and coming out of the shop, I greet every bearded man with an as-salaamu alaykum all the way through Saville Town until I crossed back over the Calder into Dewsbury’s town centre.

I grew up with a Christmas always dominated by my mother’s memory of my father ‘disappearing’ one Christmas day, allegedly to see the woman who became his third wife. I was three at the time, but still recall discovering the empty garage and my mother's anguish. Every Christmas afternoon from then on was dominated by her black depression. I have only been able to shake that feeling off since I stopped celebrating Christmas proper. Christmas is a nice idea that never happened to me.

So on Christmas morning, after presents are opened and pleasantries exchanged, the tribe will depart for Nanny Sheila’s, leaving me quite content to my own company. I can read my Qur’an stories, perhaps revisiting the tale of Isa (aws) from a Muslim perspective; I can eat a vegetarian dinner; maybe there might be something worth watching on TV, though I doubt it. But at least there will be no bone dry turkey, no enforced jollity, no more following a Christian festival very few British people genuinely believe in anymore.

Jesus, I suspect, would have approved.

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