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…