18 again

“I bet I couldn’t do it”, my friend M said to me in one of our many Whatsapp group chats. “But you could”, I responded. Because when it comes to these things, you just plow through.

We were talking about these marathon Ramadhan fasts I am facing this year – and to be fair, have been facing for the past 4-5 years. When daybreak comes at 3am and the sun sets at well past 9pm.. well, you’re in for a treat of sorts. But it is do-able, if you hold on to two things: a) you need to strategise; and b) if you fall ill you can break your fast – just remember to make it up!

One of the most tricky things to manage is that very small window between Maghrib and Imsak. You literally have 6 hours to eat, drink and do terawih, as well as catch a nap if you’re wanting to do the night prayers. And if you ‘overnap’, the downside of missing your sahur at 3am is potentially.. painful, to say the least.

So during the summer fasts I change tack a bit from what I would usually do if I were fasting in Malaysia. Instead of breaking my fast with plate upon plate of food, I pace myself, starting with soup and bread, and then maybe a small portion of rice or meats. A small portion because as much as you want to eat for the world and then some, your stomach does not really want to cooperate on that count.

Plus, if you have a heavy meal when breaking your fast, chances are you may not want to eat as much when it comes to sahur. And anyone who has done these summer fasts know that getting it right at sahur goes a long way into making the next day a bit more bearable.

At sahur time I hold fast to the belief that oats, or any other long-release breakfast foods, are best. Whether in porridge form or blended as part of a smoothie concoction, I make sure I get my fair share before going back to bed.  I know we’ve all been taught not to go back to bed after Subuh prayers; but with Subuh being at 3.10am and a 6-hour gap between then and when I am meant to be at work.. I succumb.

During the day, I often do well until about 4 or 5pm. This is when fatigue starts to kick in, and energy levels dissipate. It’s a good thing this is also often the time I am off home from work anyway; so subtly I hope there is no noticeable impact on my normal productivity at work. This is something I feel quite strongly about – that fasting or not, it should not impair the quality of work that I put in day in day out. I don’t make a big show of telling people at work I am fasting – unless they ask, or I am offered food or a drink. I don’t know why I do this – I just think it’s a personal thing so I get on with it, rather than trying to find shortcuts.

These 18-hour fasts remind me of my first attempt at fasting. The year was 1986, I was 8 years old and Ramadhan that year came during May and June: so the hours then were comparable to what they are now. (I lived in the UK from 1984-1988 while my dad was pursuing his doctorate). If memory serves I managed 6 days that year – even while continuously being tempted by my 1 year old brother waddling in his nappy eating Spring Onion flavoured crisps. Although times have changed – he is now a strapping dad with the world’s cheekiest two year old son who survived his first tarawih!


Writing When Someone’s Not Looking: On Character

Last Thursday, I attended a debate-cum-discussion organised by the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. What attracted me to the event wasn’t so much as its title: “Why Character Matters in Education” as the people who were going to speak to it. Tristram Hunt, Nicky Morgan, Estelle Morris and Michael Gove is perhaps as good as a who’s who top 5 of politicians you’d want on this topic, no less having at one point or another shared the position of Secretary of State for Education (or Shadow, as in the case of Hunt).

The interesting perspective, of course, comes from the fact that all four speakers come from the policy point of view, rather than that of the educator. (Yes, Tristram Hunt is a senior lecturer in history at QMUL, but he came to the event wearing his MP / Shadow Secretary hat). And while each speaker offered their own justification of why character mattered in education, a key theme recurred in their respective statements although Estelle Morris perhaps drove it home the most. That theme was of measurability.

In a world where what gets measured effectively does get managed, the speakers lamented the fact that the reason why character development takes a back seat to other matters especially in primary education is that it is not one of the factors upon which performance is measured upon: that is, you can write a test for English, Maths and Science, but  how would you measure character? Leave a £50 note in the corridor to see who turns it in instead of keeping it?

More pertinently, though, would you need to? I understand, coming from a policy-makers’ point of view, that the existence of a construct that could measure character, however incomplete, would allow it to be used as a benchmark and ultimately, be made to count in league tables. Once measurable and measured, we would be able to rank one against another; link pay and rewards to performance in these measures. Once quantified, we lull ourselves into thinking that it is objective; and we then, sometimes without realising it, adjust our behaviour to game the measures in our best interest.

Let’s face it, we are obsessed with ranking everything and anything: from the top holiday destinations to the best universities; from the quality of an education to the best cronuts. As consumers of rankings, we take the end result as is, very rarely questioning the underlying methodology which creates the scores that feed into the ranking system. For some reason, once a number is assigned to something, we assume it is objective, and we take it as a construct of truth.

We forget to inspect the underlying – that when ranking the top ten holiday destinations, we make assumptions about what makes a holiday destination good. Some of these assumptions are quite universal – the absence of a civil war in the country would be an example. But others are quite subjective – the existence of a swimming pool at a hotel would be a plus for some and a minus for others: how would one then incorporate such features into a ranking?

Extending this to something perhaps less trivial – say, the National Student Survey (NSS) scores which feeds into both university rankings and performance or promotion criteria for academic staff. In recent years, one question in that survey asked students whether they thought the course was challenging. For some students, a challenging course was a positive because it brought out the best in them; for others, a challenging course was a negative because it signalled their personal academic deficiencies. So how would you interpet the score for this, when the term ‘challenging’ in itself meant opposite things?

And so, coming back to character -something that we are unable to concretely define: how are we to measure this? In fact, do we need to measure this? Should we even attempt to do so, in the interest of quantitative benchmarks and performance rankings? There surely must be a line when it comes to measuring and ranking; a point at which we must realise that a poorly constructed measure is worse than having no measure at all.

Character is something that is difficult to observe, let alone measure. It borders on some of the more metaphysical things in life, like morality or faith; personal things which are embedded in the essence of who we are. Tristram Hunt quoted John Wooden’s definition of character being what he does when no one is watching – if this were to be upheld, then really character is a) largely unobservable by independent third parties and b) can only be measured by self-reporting; both rather questionable as ‘objective’ measures. (The interesting thing here is that someone of good character would probably be more honest when self-reporting; where as those devoid of it may more likely lie about it, hence creating some interesting constructs).

I speak of this as an academic coming from the branch of economics where attempting to quantify the unquantifiable is our bread and butter: for in accounting this is what we do. We assign values to things, to constructs that we are not too sure of; we make estimates and while we initially live with its limitations, through generally accepted practice (a cornerstone of how accountants operate) we forget and we think we are measuring something, where in actual fact we have only managed to roughly estimate its shadows.

But the very fact that character cannot be measured does not mean it should not be taught. The building of character through various means in education should not be ignored merely because it does not produce something that can be used as a ranking input. It could be argued that our very obsession with ranks and key performance indicators is what has led to the diminishing elements of character education: why invest in an activity that could prove to be detrimental to one’s performance indicators, even if in the long run it may bear worthy fruit?

And the fallout of that? Schoolchildren growing up to be young adults who enter university and subsequently the workplace with a view of attaining excellence at any cost. The proliferation of services where you are able to pay others to write essays for you – a well-known but hard-to-banish phenomenon infiltrating our universities today – is testament to basic economics: where there is demand there will be supply. Unlike cheating in exams, where one runs the risk of being caught red-handed; or plagiarising an essay, where there now exists software that can catch you out; using essay writing services can be harder to detect. There is a higher likelihood that you will be able to get away with it; which is where character then kicks in. At what price, that A you ‘earned’? That 2(1) you ‘delivered’? Nobody is looking, nobody knows – what would you do, asks John Wooden?

If we reach such a state in education – which I personally feel we are tootling towards at high speed- where we do things only because it leads to quantification, then we need to really sit and ask ourselves, to what end is this really education, and to what end is it mere learning? The very soul of education is in its process, and it that process is diluted more and more by money, profit and league tables, then we need to start admitting that we have sold our souls.

First foot forward

It made sense, at first. I had to perform the ghusl before Fajr prayers, and it didn’t make sense to shower, run and then shower again. I’ll just do it tomorrow, I thought to myself yesterday morning. My running schedule is spaced out on alternate days, but it’s not like I’m running a 10km every morning so much so that I’d constantly need a whole day’s recovery.

Of course, I didn’t actually check the weather forecast.

And as I looked out of the window at the frost on everyone’s car (and clearly, poor old Gomo too even though I covered him well last night), I figured a shower-run-shower-again combo would have been better than a run in -3 degrees.

I could have given it up, but of late, running in the morning before work has given me both a sense of structure and a sense of self. It put my head in the right place for the day ahead, and sometimes it even verged on the therapeutic. In fact, running therapised itself from becoming something I didn’t like very much, to becoming something I’d actually do.

And so out I trudged, doing the scheduled 4km and choosing a route that had two runs in two separate parks on the way. Birmingham has an abundance of these little parks just beyond the busy thoroughfares that make it Motor City. You just need to know where to look. On my last stretch back, through Pebble Mill Playing Fields, I saw other runners braving the cold. Clearly more dedicated than me, and at a faster pace, too. A few even nodded and waved, a mark of camaraderie, I suppose, and an acknowledgement to each other’s madness for venturing out on such a day.

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I have in the past confessed that for someone that does it quite a bit, I don’t like running. I don’t, really. I want to say that I am more of a people person and enjoy team sports more; but my reclusive nature that more and more people are beginning to attest to would say that’s a lie. My preference for sports such as football, badminton and those of its ilk lies in one thing: the ability to score, and the ability to win. I like winning, let’s put that on the table. And I’m not a fast runner, so running doesn’t offer me the opportunity to win, as much.

What made running really unenjoyable for me, in the beginning stages of my foray into this sport, was the fact that I could only push myself so much, and having failed to achieve a personal best every single day, for that was what winning entailed in my competitive mind, I got frustrated. I later found out about the run-walk movement, where the whole aim of the game is to run and walk rather than just continuously run. You start off walking more than running, and then ultimately as you get fitter, you flipped the process. So you’d end up with say, a 5-minute run and then a 2-minute fast walk, which when done in sets of 10, could pretty well get you to 10km or beyond. And that gave me more of a sense of achievement – doing a decent 10km, than huffing and puffing to run 6o minutes straight and then feeling dejected having failed to do so.

Allowing myself to do something which I am nowhere near good at has been excellent therapy for someone who is used to doing well in most things that she tries. It humbles you, and humility is never a bad thing.

And so I run.

If Abraham was alive to see this..

It’s almost two weeks now since the Trump victory, and people are still grappling with the enormity of the verdict. 2016 has been the year for unexpected events: Brexit, Leicester City winning the Premier League and now President-Elect Trump. A betting man has good money to earn in these remaining weeks.

Of course in analysing all this, we often forget that as outsiders, our view is very much skewed. When we are outside looking in, a very different view of America, or indeed, the UK, France or wherever. The USA of our television sets are cities such as New York or Los Angeles, the UK that we see is really London or Manchester. Even in times of atrocity, the Syria that we see are not beyond the warzones of Aleppo. This limited view – which still persists even with 24-hour television and the Internet – often oversimplifies what we see and it makes us think we understand; when really, we don’t. Real life in these countries are lived in Sioux Falls in Iowa and Jaywick in Essex; not in New York or London where inhabitants of these metropoles are so international that very few of them really even have the right to vote.

Despite this, collectively, as a world, we are trying to drill down the reason behind why Trump is President-Elect to a soundbite, to a digestible summary of reasons. Why? My conjecture is that by being able to simplify this, we are able to also categorise and it creates a way for us to assign blame to others; and in effect, absolving ourselves of blame from the cause of the atrocity, the undesired event, the disaster.

We do this a lot, whether we realise it or not. When we hear of a death, we often ask: why? Oh he had a heart attack. We probe further: did he smoke? Yes. If at this point we identify ourselves as a non-smoker, then the questions often end: for we are unlikely to perhaps meet a similar end, as we do not smoke. If we are a smoker, we probe further: how many packs did he smoke in a day? Was he already warned about this? We ask and we try to simplify and categorise, so that we carve ourselves out of association. It isn’t me.  Nothing is more unsettling than hearing, “oh, he had a heart attack, but he was otherwise super healthy”.

While such behaviour seems ingrained in society, I have mixed feelings about singling out specific factors. There are complexities that are often intertwined with others, a mixture of variables that are often benign on their own, but taken together can bring out the worst of people when a catalyst rears its ugly head.

My conjecture is that the catalyst behind all this is that most basic of needs as defined by Abraham Maslow: survival. The physiological needs – when threatened, threats one’s survival, and if you know how to light a fire under this catalyst, you have in your hands a very powerful tool of manipulation.

People talk about how sane people could vote for a racist, sexist, misogynist – shaking our heads in disbelief. But we discount the fact that  we live in a time where racism, sexism, misogyny etc are outweighed by a more basic need: that of survival. You simply vote for the candidate who is more likely to help you survive: be it by way of better jobs, lower taxes, less competition for limited funds – when it is a matter of survival you feel guilty about the black / Muslim / native Americans that may struggle but hey you’re struggling too.

This is the fallout of fake promises of guaranteed home ownership: where sub-prime mortgages that you trusted would finally bring you into the suburbs instead led you to the trailer park. This is the fallout of the desire to better oneself through education; only to see education being something you are increasingly priced out of – or if you’re not, then something that leaves you crippled with debt for the rest of your adulthood. This is the fallout of fake promises made by people who don’t stay around long enough to help you scoop the shit off your walls after it hits the fan.

Sure, we all want world peace and all the fluffy things that go with it, but how many of us can really afford to dream about it when the next plate of food is even more visually vague? We discuss, condemn legislate against racism, sexism, misogyny but no one is fixing the real small cut that is now growing to be a festering, pus-filled wound.

A large part of the disenfranchisement, I feel, is symptomatic of the failures of capitalism. I say this not because I champion socialism or communism as an alternative, but in its current form, the abject worship of capital – that is, wealth – has now managed, over a few generations, to create class systems that are more apparent; and worse still, an attitude of individualism and not being able to care: note that I argue it is not being able to care, rather than not wanting to care. Nowhere is capitalism more rampant than in America, and in that sense you begin to understand that survival may be what underlines what and how people vote. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs exemplifies this: while people are sympathetic towards the plight of others, they are unable to vote for self-actualising reasons when the more basic needs are unfulfilled.

But how does this explain the voters who are affluent who also chose for Trumpian presidency? The thing is, you don’t have to be in dire straits to be swayed this way – for many, the very threat of a possible change in the way we live our lives is enough. Wine consultant Robin Moore, in an article in the Financial Times, said she voted for Trump because “I have a problem with people coming in illegally, abusing our healthcare system, being given things that other people have worked for, social security benefits, being paid under the table and not paying taxes”. Eerily similar to those who opted to vote for Brexit.

I have not yet fact-checked whether her claims are backed up by facts and statistics, but even if they aren’t, it doesn’t matter: the very thought of something that threatens their basic needs – healthcare, benefits, the way they live – is enough to push buttons. Fear mongering works when you tap into the more basic survival instincts of man. It doesn’t work as well when you tap into the higher echelons of the pyramid – esteem or self-actualisation.

[There is space for research here to evaluate the extent to which candidates win election by using campaign language that targets at lower levels of the hierarchy of needs. I just wish I had the time (and the political science expertise) to do it.]

And so it is. We can only look forward now, and we need to stop playing Schrodinger’s President and keep wondering what if. I want to say, hang on baby it’s a bumpy ride but you know what? Only time will tell how well paved that road really is.


Brexit and Me (100 days on)

It has been 135 days since June 24th. I don’t actually keep a running tally – these days you can just Google these things – but I think about this a lot because I’m trying to make sense of the world in the days following June 24th, 2016. Especially on the verge of yet another momentous date – November 9th 2016: which, in non-American date parlance, may signal another ominous date-cronym.

Or not, we shall see, as Americans decide the fate of the free world.

Ok, I concede, a bit dramatic. But I’d be the world’s most oblivious if I dare not admit that things have changed since the UK EU Referendum: not necessarily in the mood of the towns and cities (that changed long before Britain went to the ballot boxes) but more lastingly, inside of me and in my psyche.

The day after the EU referendum, when the facts (and levels of disbelief) were beginning to sink in, we had an Open Day on campus: a day when potential applicants would visit the university, ask questions and be wowed (or un-wowed) by what Birmingham had to offer. Throughout the morning, while doing my time manning the Accounting and Finance stand, emails and texts were trickling in about what to say if we were asked about fees for EU students, or where the university stood when it came to matters referendum.

Funnily enough, no one actually brought it up in the two hours I was there; and it wasn’t until I was at the train station, heading towards Birmingham International to pick up Ili, that I was approached by someone who seemed so jubilant about the result she missed my slumped shoulders and look of utter dejection as I sat on Platform 1.

“Isn’t it brilliant?” she enthused. “A new dawn for us all!”

I smiled politely, very conscious of both the suit and the hijab I was wearing. “It’s early days but things will change,” I responded cautiously.

“Yes, yes, but what a start to the weekend, eh?” she nudged me with a knowing wink. These are the benefits of living north of Watford: God forbid getting into a conversation with strangers down south, save for Jehovah’s Witnesses wanting to save my wanton soul.

“Certainly a bright one ahead,” I replied, referring to the unrelentless sunshine beating on my poor, fasting head; yet happy for her to misconstrue the meaning. I am nothing if not non-confrontational. Inside my heart was as broken as the future of multicultural Britain. Sort of.

“Oooh yes, indeed!” she laughed and smiled.  The train arrived slowly into the station. “You have a good one, luv,” her parting words as we got into the carriage.

And probably, that was as pleasant as it got that first weekend after the results. Over the next few days, news filtered through of increases in racist attacks, demonstrations by far-right / far-right leaning groups, the shoving of racial abuse down postboxes, mouthy children telling their non-British schoolmates to ‘Go Home’. It was ugly, and it was not the Britain of my childhood even having grown up in the depths of Thatcherism.

Of course, as Muslims, we were used to – even sadly almost auto-immune –  such vitriol every time some idiot somewhere decided to commit an act of terror while not being white. But this time, it wasn’t just Muslims, or non-whites, who were targets. It was everyone who weren’t ethnically English or British.

In the 100-odd days that have since ensued, some of the racism has died down; but the bitter aftertaste is evident everywhere: from the areas you avoid after dark to the policies the government are putting up.

One thing that really affected me was that I really felt scared of wearing the hijab when on public transport, especially buses and trains. I have been through this before, post 9-11 and 7-7, where people would stop talking as I walked by in the streets, but I have never felt physically threatened before, not deep down in my heart of hearts.

I do, now.

I walk past groups of people – regardless of race – and I feel scared. I stand way back on train platforms, for fear of being pushed onto the tracks by someone because of nothing more than being non-white. I wear headphones and blast it with loud music whenever I am on the bus: not because I want to be left alone but because I don’t want to hear things. And sadly for me, unless I am in a safe space, such as at work, or with a large group of friends I trust, I wear a modified headscarf that makes it less obvious I am covering my hair. It depresses me.

The other thing that I have noticed, internally, is that I now view the England and the British flag with different eyes now. Whenever I see the England flag – a red cross on a white background – now I automatically associate it with racist Brexiters gloating about their ‘win’ on June 24th.

Once a symbol of footballing pride, I now see it as a marker of something to avoid. This is ironic, of course, because as an ardent England fan, many a World Cup or Euro I have draped the very same flag on my balcony, championing good sporting spirit during the games. (How ardent an England fan am I? I am known to have gone to work at the NST on the day after David Beckham’s petulant kick in the World Cup in 1998 wearing my England jersey).

It’s no longer a symbol of football for me. It’s turned into a symbol of hate: a symbol of people who do not want me here, regardless of the amount of tax I pay into the kitty every month willingly to support the very dole some of these people pick up weekly. And that to me is beyond sad. Sadder than the state of the England football team, which says a lot these days.

Burnley At Home on a November Monday night..

West Bromwich Albion seemed an obvious choice for me as the local team to support when I moved over to Birmingham in January. Aston Villa was very quickly discounted: any club David Cameron professed an affiliation to was not one I could cheer in good stead. That left Birmingham City and West Bromwich; and I want to say it was WBA’s Premiership status that swung the vote, but truth be told, for both teams yo-yoing between the two top flights is very much an occupational hazard.

So between the two, my heart said the Albion because of the United link: a number of United old boys are doing well here: Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher and Ben Foster; and my favourite midfield maestro Bryan Robson was an Albion alum before making the trek to Old Trafford.

West Bromwich Albion is not a rich club, by any means. It isn’t even located in a particularly affluent part of Birmingham: in 2016  West Bromwich itself was named as the most deprived area in the UK. This contrasts greatly with the other club of my heart, my first love now estranged by my reluctance to partake in excessive money football.

I have since made it to a few home games – mainly out of opportunity rather than anything else; and to date the home games I have missed have been due to conflicting schedules. Having purchased a club membership – a princely sum of £6, relative to about five times that for United (it was three times that even in 2002), having dibs on tickets to home games where you are not stuck in Tier 3 nearer the Earth’s orbit than the pitch, is nice.


My first home game this season – the game against Middlesborough – I was treated to a season ticket holder’s unused seat, and smack dab in the cheering section of the home team: the Smethwick End. Not knowing too many cheer songs going in, I could certainly join in with a few on my way out. My favourite is “He’s magic you know… You can’t get past Claudio…” in tribute to Claudio Yacob, who, in my eyes at least, is far from magic and quite a hapless defender by Premiership standards. But the fans love him and maybe given time I too might find a certain fondness for the Argentinian.   

The second game I went to was against Spurs – a ticket I bought full price because I wanted good, pitch side seat, and a pitch side seat I did get: right across the aisle from one Harry Kane, no less (who was injured and watched the game from the stands). The spice of the game was the presence of WBA’s new signing Nacer Chadli from Spurs, a creative midfielder with a penchant for scoring but was very much (in my opinion) under-utilised in Pochettino’s side. It wasn’t him, though, that impressed me most but speedy defender Allan Nyom, another recent signing, who could pretty much sprint up and down the field at a pace that annoyed the Spurs attack. If only his distribution was more on point…

DSC03902.JPGIt remains to be seen whether I would go to the next home game: Burnley at home on a Monday night in November might be equivalent to the ‘wet Tuesday night away at Stoke’ in terms of the casual fan – but for £15 it might be quite a steal. Burnley after all held their own at Old Trafford only last weekend.

It is different going to a game where the team you are rooting most likely would lose or draw rather than win, and that is the given expectation: where a win (and three points) is a bonus; avoidance of a relegation battle more the aim than getting any sort of trophy. But it’s fun and perhaps fits better with my curmudgeonly old self: once enamoured by the big teams and their attractive play, now disenchanted by the amount of money pouring into the game and the pockets of the few. West Bromwich Albion, albeit foreign owned (as are all the major Midland clubs, it seems) are just happy to be playing in the top division of one of the best leagues in the world, and I am just happy to be watching them and cheering them on.

Boing, boing… as they say..