In the midst of it all

Savor the moment. The trick is to be happy *right now*. In the midst of it all, the imperfection, the muddles, the awkwardness, the uncertainty, the wait, the not-quite, the almost, the journey, life with all of its spectacular incompleteness. The trouble is, we think we will be happy once this is done or that is reached so that happiness always stays in some future place, and once we reach the future place, it has moved farther ahead. It is to be able to be glad in the present moment that does the trick. That is when you are able to beat the elusiveness of happiness. Amina Obaid Khawaja. 23-01-2017



Mist in my eyes

Oil painting a single Red tulip flower with green leaves.

Mist in my eyes

I was expecting this

but it’s still a surprise

A lump and a tear

I live my final fear

‘Are we related?’, he asks

‘I am your daughter’, I reply.

[Reflections on Dementia]

(Amina Obaid Khawaja


The world stands awed and it should~

The calm! The calm with which the child sits! I haven’t seen calm of this sort before. I have seen nothing of this sort before. Have you ever seen even a grownup assume such calm in the midst of a storm? What silence has enveloped this child? What stillness holds him?! This is something remarkable, something big. Though I can’t fully grasp or convey what it is about it that is so awe-filling, so gripping, it’s somewhere above awesome and awful, somewhere between them. This calm in the backdrop of frenzied chaos. The contrast is overpowering.
The world stands awed and it should. This child is a sign. His silence, the poise, Allahu akbar! He’s meant to break hearts, to shatter them to pieces. Let grief sweep over you. Let love clog your throat. Let yourself feel the jolt of agony. Be merciless to yourself, for a while. Embrace the strength of the experience! But then emerge from your own emotional ruin. Look for answers, form them. Don’t tell me the child doesn’t fill you with questions, with disquietude. What mindless lives we are living! The only things worth doing are to serve Allah and to help His creatures! How badly are we failing this!
This picture should bring about a crisis. Don’t hurry past it. Let it serve its purpose. Own the pain but negotiate it with wisdom. There’s a lesson. Don’t let it miss you.
It has brought face to face with many things: Lives are temporary, humans are fragile, the dunya is treacherous (calamities are an inevitable part of it, corruption and chaos (fasaad) and bloodshed and violence), people have made a mess of things. A terrible, terrible mess. We should wake to our total, absolute and entire dependence on Allah. We can’t make it without Him. We can’t take this on alone. Let’s be more aware of all this, more tuned to the reality of our situation, our fragility and strength. Let’s do what is required of us, let’s practice compassion and touch as many lives as we can. Saving one Syrian child will be like saving the entire human race. Let’s support a refugee, reach the war torn with our donations. Let’s be kinder to the people around us and make sure we are not agents of violence. Let’s reconnect with the Quran and the way of the Prophet SAW. Let’s find our way back to them.
The child is a sign. He’s meant to make sure that we will pray a little more desperately, a little longer, a little harder. Some more tears are meant to be shed. Some of the numbness should leave us. His valiant dignity is spellbinding.
What a brave little thing, you are Omron. The world has badly failed you but Allah won’t let you down, I promise.
Amina Obaid Khawaja
20th August 2016

Memories are amazing things

Memories are amazing things; visitations from the past, scenes, sounds and images mingled with feeling tones, sometimes slippery and at other times securely in grasp. When I visit my parents’ place, there is a big difference between the old things there from my childhood and the new ones. The former seem to speak to me and I feel a strange binding affinity to them. The latter are mute and unspeaking, mere things and not half-creatures…
Memories have fascinated me for a long time now. Some of them have a mesmerizing beauty; they haunt and tug at my heart. I look back and an image materializes. My younger brother is ill, feverish or otherwise unwell and my father reciting the masnoon dua ‘azhibil ba’sa’ … O Allah, Lord and Sustainer of mankind, remove difficulty and cure .You are the only One who cures. There is no cure but Yours. Grant such (complete) cure that leaves no trace of illness. He recited in a characteristic tune that I still know, stopping at each sentence. I think I memorized the dua listening to him and in the same rhythm. Or maybe, my mother learnt listening to him and I learnt it from her. It gets a little hazy. But I can hear my father, a very successful and more importantly a very dearly loved physician, beseeching Allah as he believed that cure is from Him and physicians extend assistance and do the best they can to help: his philosophy of health and illness that he passed on to us.
As I visited him this Sunday (April, 2014), my heart wrenched as I saw him struggling to get up from the sofa. I could sense that he intended to rise but was unable to. I offered him my arm and he took it unwillingly, letting go as soon as he was upright, as if reluctant to take help. At another time, he managed to get up on his own and went toward the book shelf where he keeps his medicines. When he came back he had brought a multivitamin for me. That’s what parents are like: unwilling to take help from children but sensing our needs and going out of their way to meet those. They are our pillars of strengths, no matter how feeble they are.
It is with a heart full of gratitude that I pray for him now: O Allah O Lord and Sustainer of People, Remove difficulty and cure. You are the only one who cures…I ask Almighty Allah, Lord of the Magnificent throne to make you well.

When the little grey cells rebel: Thoughts on Agatha Christie and Alzheimer’s


I love Agatha Christie books (almost all of them and some of them more than others). I discovered Christie (or rather read her first book) quite late (in my twenties) and strangely I hated it. It is strange because I simply adored (almost) all her other books later, especially the Poirot Series. For reasons that are still unclear to me, it just did not appeal to me at all. I need to re-read it to see why it didn’t quite click.
Christie’s mysteries, as you may be well aware if you’ve read her work, are brilliantly plotted and ingeniously woven tales of crime and investigation. Her much loved character Poirot is an exceptionally intelligent Belgian detective whose post-retirement career Christie charts in her 43 Poirot novels. It is customary for Poirot to speak of the ‘little grey cells” (of the brain) and how they help him penetrate to the truth of each case. Order, method and precision are Poirot’s signature words and methods and he never fails to delight in how he applies these to the cases he investigates. Poirot’s ingenuity and intelligence is a reflection of the writer who created the character.
I didn’t know that my fascination with Christie will deepen in another way too. For some years now, I have developed a strong interest in neurological disorders and the cognitive decline/changes associated with them. More specifically, I’ve been reading and writing about dementia and have been intrigued by the narratives and accounts of persons with dementia who have talked and written about their experiences and how the condition impacted their identity, awareness, functioning and life course. I started feeling that there are lessons therein to be learnt from the decline. There are messages of hope, faith and meaning that shine through these writings (for example, Christine Bryden’s writings).
It was a strange co-incidence when my interests in Christie’s books and dementia intersected. I came across an article that discussed the possibility that Christie may have developed Alzheimer’s in her late life which remained undiagnosed. This has been inferred from an analysis of her writings whereby a comparison of early writings with the late one showed a marked decline in breadth of vocabulary, clarity of thought and overall quality of writing. Those late novels (may) lead to different reactions from different readers: those who are staunch Christie fans and have read her masterpieces before coming across her later writings are either puzzled, disappointed, frustrated or bored , not understanding how Christie could write so ‘poorly’ (as they see it) or be so vague and unlike herself. Often the reader decides that the books are uncharacteristic of Christie. There are other stauncher Christie fans who like those late books equally well. Those who are not familiar with Christie and read one of those late novels before her other writings may form an unfavorable opinion of her and wonder why she is such an acclaimed writer. They may later read her other books and come to like her eventually.
The article mentioned the Christie novel ‘Elephants can remember’ and I recalled that I just could not enjoy it when I read it a few years ago. A vagueness and a kind of languor pervades the entire book, with little happening and much repetition, very unlike the crispness of a typical Christie creation. It was a very late Christie (1972). [Christie’s writing career spans more than half a century (1920-1973)] Of course I had no idea about the background to it. The title is also suggestive; the theme is memory and remembering. The same haziness is reflected by “Postern of fate’ in which the characters struggle with putting bits and pieces together to try to understand things, making very little and slow progress, as if stuck in a recurring cycle. It is also interesting that one of Christie’s finest novels (my favorite) “Curtain: Poirot’s last case” although published in 1975 was actually written decades earlier (Early 1940’s) and put in a vault to make sure that Poirot would have a fitting finale when the time comes. Did Chrsitie have some kind of a premonition that she wouldn’t be able to write as well later?
For me, it is sad that the finest of intellects is not immune to dementia. The remarkable thing is the valor with which she continued to write despite the difficulties that she must have been facing as her little grey cells refused to cooperate. This resonates with a theme I often think about: A person’s struggle for wholeness and integration as dementia comes to erode one’s being more and more. I wrote a poem to depict this:
Promise me
That if I become
Half of what I am or less
You will remember the person I was
Later, going through excerpts from Christie’s autobiography, I came across the same theme of changing selves and her answer to the ‘wholeness’ question.
“’Where was I, myself, the whole man, the true man?’We never know the whole man, though sometimes, in quick flashes, we know the true man. I think, myself, that one’s memories represent those moments which, insignificant as they may seem, nevertheless represent the inner self and oneself as most really oneself. I am today the same person as that solemn little girl with pale flaxen sausage-curls. The house in which the spirit dwells, grows, develops instincts and tastes and emotions and intellectual capacities, but I myself, the true Agatha, am the same. I do not know the whole Agatha. The whole Agatha, so I believe, is known only to God”

It’s as though no matter what apparent degeneration the physical self may go through, the whole and unpolluted essence of what a person is remains safe in God’s hands…

Psychology and Invisible Realities

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people adapt the world to themselves. All progress therefore depends on unreasonable people”.

George Bernard Shaw

I’ve had the good fortune of teaching the history of psychology to undergraduate students and I noticed a peculiar thing. Modern Psychology began its journey roughly in 1879 and it has come full circle with the emergence of the cognitive school of thought. As Wundtian psychology it began as an endeavor to understand the human mind. Then after a period of time, under the influence of Watson, mind and all such “vague” phenomena as they call them were ousted from its domain. But an interesting thing happened with the birth of cognitive psychology: Psychologists again realized the obvious importance of mental processes and returned to the common-sense approach that recognizes that mind being the foundation and indeed the cause of all behavior cannot be ignored. This is how psychology completed a circle that spans roughly a 100 years. When you are moving in a circle, you are not really going anywhere because a circle ends where it begins and this means that sooner or later you are back to square one. But what is even more intriguing is that psychology has completed a larger circle also. If we take the Greek period as the starting point for the history of Psychology, it was a time when soul was a matter of great interest for philosophers and scholars and the notion of God was accepted as legitimate to mention. Afterwards these two words became odious for psychologists and indeed taboo as psychology developed “physics-envy” and deemed it necessary to rid itself of anything having even a remote religious flavor. The larger circle has almost been completed with the appearance of positive psychology because words that were once forbidden have made reappearance in books, articles and elsewhere. We see words that clearly have a religious or spiritual connotation such as compassion, forgiveness, praying, character, morality and yes-even faith. Without having realized it, we have entered into a new phase of psychology’s history that is gradually moving towards the incorporation of the idea of God in the textbooks of psychology as the most natural thing in the world. My plea is for an acceleration of this process.

Please lets take a brief look at the reason why scientific psychology always tended to be “theo-phobic” to use a term that Dr. Muhammad Rafiuddin adopted. The hallmark of sciences is an aversion to anything that cannot be seen with the human eye because it regards the sense organs as the only source of true knowledge. But this attitude is essentially flawed. Let me quote Dr. Rafiuddin. The visibility of an object or an entity is not essential proof of its existence. If we become scientifically sure of the presence of smoke at any place, we become scientifically sure also of the presence of fire or combustion at that place. Indeed not only the existence but also the details of the qualities and characteristics of an invisible object can be known scientifically by its visible effects and manifestations. No scientist has ever seen an atom. Yet who can deny today that the atom is a scientific fact? It is generally recognized by the scientists themselves that scientific facts are of two kinds-the facts based on direct observation and the facts in the form of assumptions which explain and order facts based on direct observation. The atom is a scientific fact of the second category and so is God because the force of the creative will of God—is ultimately the only assumption that can adequately explain all true facts of physics, biology and psychology.”

Let me share an intriguing fact with you that most of us are probably not aware of. No man or woman has ever seen his or her own face directly (except probably the farthest tip of the nose) All you’ve ever seen is a reflection (you in the mirror, you in somebody else’s eyes, reflection on the surface of water, photograph etc) If we go by the fundamental principle of scientists that anything that cannot be seen has a dubious existence and is not a worthwhile thing to study, we would not even be able to be reasonably sure that we have a face or that it is the same face as the reflection. “Seeing is believing” puts us in a very difficult situation.

Humans would not be able to live the normal life that we are accustomed to if we abide fully by the “seeing is believing” rule. Out of the information that we have access to at any given moment only .01 % or less is confirmed after seeing. I was looking at the computer screen as I worked on this article. If at that time my husband spoke to me, I would believe without turning my head that it is he and not only a disconnected voice. I won’t have to see and confirm that the voice has a source. When I am sitting in my room, my kitchen, the TV lounge, the whole house is not visible to me. But I have no choice but to think that even when I do not see it, it’s there. Otherwise I would fail to function. Ok, you would say, they are not visible right now but potentially visible. I can go and check that the TV lounge is there. But a colossal part of my knowledge is about things are not even potentially visible: knowledge about history e.g. I believe in the stone age, the renaissance, the Victorian era, the partition of the subcontinent without having personally witnessed that. When I am at the university, my home would cease to exist scientifically and when I am home, there would be no university. So there are limitations that leave us no choice but to believe without seeing in the al-ghaib or the Absent.

Science is replete with examples of invisible realities it cannot deny e.g. black holes are invisible because light cannot escape from them. In fact when the black holes were first hypothesized, they were called “invisible stars”. A black hole can be found indirectly by observing its effects on the stars close to it. I was amazed to read in the newspaper that physicists are beginning to discover that most of the physical universe (roughly 96%) is composed of black matter about whose nature we know absolutely nothing because it invisible. It is the remaining 4% that is composed of atoms and molecules that we are familiar with. This means that even within physics, the gulf between the physical and the meta-physical is all but bridged now. To conclude let me say that it is high time Pakistani psychologists re-considered their aversion to the subtler phenomena and incorporated them within mainstream psychology instead of keeping them marginalized like in the past because even in the West, they are making a steady but sure comeback.


Finding meaning in pain- Some reflections on Parkinson’s

I sit on the prayer mat in my parents’ house in what used to be my grandfather’s room and marvel at the poignance of the memories that are flooding back from the past. They are not vivid in terms of the clarity of the images they are creating; the vividness is in the pain that they are causing and it feels like a new pain, if you know what I mean. I am thinking about my grandfather and an indescribable sadness has engulfed me. It is amazing; I think to myself, that more than twenty five years later I can feel the loss afresh. His passing away must have caused distress to me as a child of eight but I find myself mourning the loss all over again, in a more complete way somehow. As if the loss needed this quarter of a century to come full circle, to complete the gestalt. Except the gestalt is never really complete for one gestalt is intertwined with another in such a way that it is hard to tell where one ended and another began.
He had Parkinson’s. It was just a word to me like all other words are until life filled it with personal meaning for me*. His was a prolonged illness. Parkinson’s and other medical complications like a hip fracture and unsuccessful surgery had rendered him invalid. As a young child I saw him restricted to his bed mostly or the chair beside it. As far back as my memory goes, his illness had already progressed to the point where he was unable to speak coherently. I remember him calling out just about the only word that he did utter: ‘bhabi’, what he called my mother, one of his primary caregivers. One memory that particularly stands out among many others is that when any of his grandchildren shook hands with him, he used to hold their hand very firmly and wouldn’t let go. At that time this caused some degree of apprehension in me. But now I can look at the gesture with a renewed understanding, as a manifestation of his need to hold on to his loved ones and family, to connect in ways other than those that his illness had made impossible.
It was a few months ago I started reading up on neurological disorders. It was about the same time when I became aware that I had acquired a strong fear of dementia, the progressive decline of cognitive functioning that results from neurological diseases. It took me some thinking to decide that it was a more basic fear, fear of the loss of self. It is the insidious course of degenerative diseases and their often unremitting nature that makes me terrified. There is a steady decline in the ability to reason, recall and communicate. It is as if the disease erodes you, comes to inhabit more and more of you until sometimes, if it progresses beyond a certain point, all that is left of a person is a shell. As if the persons reduced to a caricature of himself. I felt it was also akin to a gradual blurring of the field of awareness. And that produced almost a claustrophobic anxiety reaction in me. The question posed by Bryden (1998) in the title of her book haunted me, “Who will I be when I die?’. I felt that I needed to think beyond this negative picture. I had to find the other side.
Reading on, I found that people with dementia have been assisted in reconstructing their identities through writing. Writing comes comparatively easier to them than conversation as they have more time to gather their thoughts and link things in their own way (Ryan, E. B., et al, 2007). Writing brings clarity, consolidates their sense of self and affirms their identities as communicators and social actors. Since their past and long term memories tend to  become clearer for them than events in their immediate past, life review therapy and reminiscence work , in which they recall their life experiences, can be a very fulfilling experience (if handled with tact and sufficient skillfulness). Somehow, what they were is more central to their sense of selves. It is as if they are holding on to their former selves for preserving their sense of identity. Some theorists believe that what is more important is a continuity is their sense of identity rather than a boundary dividing the was-me from is-me. This integration may also be facilitated through memoir writing and life review. I also found that caregiving can be a powerful and enriching experience whereby one can bond in new ways.
I had been wondering about my grandfather’s experience of post-illness life. I wondered about his meaning making endeavors, how he made sense of it all. I realized that as his perceptual and cognitive world grew increasingly constricted at an apparent level, perhaps (and I am hoping it was so) it was expanding along a different dimension.

I learnt that life, love and meaning are in no way denied to persons with Parkinson’s. They may even unfold with a greater richness for them and for their caregivers. I think I am ready to answer Bryden’s question, Who Will I be When I Die. You Will be Yourself.

*Note: I was driven to write this article after my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

I have a PhD (A piece of Satirical Poetry)

I have a PhD

And not just any.

It’s from the great Great Britain

I have a PhD

That not very many

Can ever really hope to attain*

So here I am

Your brand new brown mem

To tell you how to speak and behave

You are now not a colony

That may be true but

It doesn’t make you any less a slave

What is foreign is foreign

And inherently superior

To anything that you mi

ght create

So O you native

You uncultured indigene

Don’t you dare from our ways deviate

I am a PhD

And you know what’s


I am sitting in this high chair of mine

That gives me the right

To judge and dismiss

To falsely accuse and undermine

I will raise my brow

And will whip you with words

I will frown my indomitable frown

I will deride

And your lot decide

I am English you know; I may be brown!

* Britain and attain do not rhyme. But it is a practice in poetry (i think) to use words that end with the same letters even they if do not have the same sound.

Note: It is a piece of satire ‘inspired’ by people from former British colonies who go to the UK or other ‘first world’ countries and return with a foreign degree, a lot of hot air and a disdain for ‘us natives’. This has been written primarily in the context of academia.

From the poem "Lenin before God"
From the poem “Lenin before God”