Layers of loss and grief: how life changed its course in recent months

Sunday 27th September 2021

It was 6am, and I was lying awake on that Sunday morning. Suddenly, my husband’s phone rang. It had only been two weeks since my father-in-law passed away, and we were still in the early stages of mourning. This was the first major loss our family would experience, but it wouldn’t be the last.

“Innaa lillaahi wa innaa ilayhi Raji’oon.” I heard my husband solemnly say on the phone. He sounded shocked, and kept repeating one name in disbelief: “Uthman?”

I felt paralysed before I could feel any pain. Uthman, my 10-year-old nephew (my sister’s son) had died the night before . My daughter, who is the same age, had lost her best friend and cousin. I had to muster up some courage to let the children know, before we headed to my sister’s house. When we eventually reached, I saw my sister laying in bed, eyes closed, unable to move. I raised my head to see that Uthman’s white thobe was hanging from the wardrobe door, and remembered the conversation I had with him on the Wednesday before:

“I am starting Hifdh on Monday Khala Amma!” he had told me with great excitement. Monday never came for him, not in this world. May he rejoice in the gardens of Paradise with all the other children taken so young. The loss of Uthman shook our family, but we will try our utmost to keep his memory alive, and to continue his legacy of love, laughter and kindness. Uthman leaves behind two younger brothers. This March the 7th, Uthman would have been 11. I imagined him walking down the stairs, rushing to his mother with excitement. There is so much pain inside for all of us I can never fully articulate. I pray for his parents, most of all, that they are granted some degree of peace and reassurance that Uthman is now safe and dwelling in gardens of bliss.

Tuesday 4th January 2022

After a gruelling battle with liver cancer, my beloved maternal grandmother had finally breathed her last. It was news we had been expecting, yet it did not make it easier to bear. Once a woman of great beauty and stature, she now lay lifeless in her white shroud, ready to continue her journey into another realm. The backbone of our family had now left us. I was her eldest grandchild, and she had taken care of me after birth.

By this stage, I was already taking time off university. In September 2021, I had started the final year of my undergraduate degree, but any hope of completion was shattered by what was to come. I wasted no time in taking a year out of study. In retrospect, it was the best thing I ever did.

In a few days, it will be Ramadhan, the blessed month of fasting. Less than a year ago, we would never have known that we would lose three members of our family, and that in three households, there will be one empty seat at our tables. Ramadhan reminds us of the constants amidst the variables of this fleeting life: mercy and forgiveness. I know just how much I and other family members will depend on these constants in the coming weeks.

My final message to my family, friends and associates: I wish you all a very blessed Ramadhan. Keep me in your pious duas, and I will do the same.

With love

Sultana

Amidst linguistic scholars: my first contribution to academia

During the first month of my second year at university in 2020, my lecturer, Dr Isabela Fairclough, set us a homework task as part of a formative assessment. Isabela specialises in linguistic subjects such as discourse analysis and media framing. She lectures in argumentation theory, media framing and semantics at the University of Central Lancashire. As part of this homework task, we had to choose to write about one of eight topics which we were already investigating on the basis of media coverage. Some of these topics included: freedom of speech, social media and mass surveillance. Once we had chosen the topic, we were to write an imaginary letter to the Vice-Chancellor, framing our own experience as students in terms of what we felt was the most significant value. I chose to write about freedom of speech.

My lecturer showed great appreciation for the letters we wrote, and took the time to send an email to our class to tell us how pleased she was. In this email, she listed some names of students whose work stood out to her – one of those names were mine, and another one of those names was Ben, my fellow classmate. I was immensely grateful to my lecturer for showing such appreciation for my work.

A few weeks later, my lecturer sent me and Ben another email. Isabela was editing a collection of essays in honour of her husband’s 80th birthday, and was asking us both whether we would give permission for our letters to be included in this contribution. “What a beautiful tribute to her husband!” I thought. Not only did I feel honoured, but was extremely moved by my lecturer’s admiring acknowledgement of her students’ work. During my time at university, I have witnessed how thoughtful my lecturers have been when it came to giving me feedback, and it has truly helped me to progress. They were more than tutors: they were mentors. But to have my work featured in one of my lecturers’ publications was an unparalleled achievement, and a testimony to Isabela’s dedication to her field of expertise.

In 2021, Isabela’s edited collection of essays was published, and the book is called Language and Power: Essays in honour of Norman Fairclough. There are also two other editors for the publication. The book brings together the work of scholars from around the world to celebrate the contribution made to the field of discourse studies by Norman Fairclough. Dr Norman Fairclough is now the Emeritus Professor of Language in Social Life at the University of Lancaster.

The texts and tributes describe the development of a discipline, and of the University of Lancaster over time. It traces commonalities, differences and changes in the work of some major names in the field of Critical Discourse Analysis. What is also discernible just by looking at the description of the book and the pages of endearing pictures, is my lecturer’s love and loyalty towards her dear husband. The book is not simply a collection of academic composition, but also a glimpse into a lifetime of happy memories that husband and wife have shared alongside their academic ventures. Indeed, this is what makes this publication so special. To have my name recorded amongst these scholarly giants in this heartwarming tribute is a dream come true for a student like me.

The book is available to purchase on Amazon, or you can click on the link below:

Dr Isabela also has another publication – co-authored with her husband called Political Discourse Analysis.

Minarets in the Mountains: a book review

Minarets in the Mountains is a fascinating account of Tharik Hussain’s journey around Muslim Europe, accompanied by his wife and children. A former teacher and journalist, Hussain guides his reader with focus and precision as he treads across several countries in the Balkans to explore the remnants of a once Ottoman Europe. The author delights readers with descriptions of idyllic mountainous regions and makes note of the Islamic-themed architecture he finds during his visits to each mosque and its minarets. The author is a Fellow at the University of Groningen’s Centre for Religion and Heritage, and is the creator of Britain’s first Muslim Heritage trails, known as The Woking Trails and The Muslim Cemetery Trails.

The book gives detailed historic accounts of an indigenous Muslim Europe, and it is evident that the author has thoroughly researched each of the countries he visited. In line with his teaching persona, Hussain never strays from the purpose of his journey, which is to follow in the footsteps of the great Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi. Hussain is a brilliant storyteller, who masterfully engages his reader by showing rather than telling. The reader is accompanied by Hussain on a round trip starting from Sarajevo – dubbed as the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’ – to Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, before once again returning to Sarajevo for a final remembrance. Accounts from each of these countries include the origins of an indigenous Muslim Europe, with enchanting illustrations of the tombs of Sufis and mystics who once graced these regions with their blissful presence.

Hussain’s book portrays a pleasing picture of harmonious communities, where people of all and no religions live side by side, socialising, engaging in mutual business and even going on to marry one another. The Ottoman Europe modelled the ideal society by taking care of its own people as well as protecting the oppressed and downtrodden. The book highlights that the Balkans served as a haven for Jews when Nazi power was in full force. One realisation kept manifesting itself in my mind while I was reading this book: it is that no nation can be truly wiped out, ever; no identity can ever be erased. In some way, like a determined flower that germinates and blossoms from the cracks of concrete, civilisations too, will inevitably return to continue their forefathers’ legacies. Even if bullets are fired, bridges are burned, and masses are murdered, the force of their undying love and loyalty will restore life, revive lush terrains, and rebuild bridges stronger than ever before.

A discernible feature of Hussain’s book is that he casts his family as memorable characters in the narrative. With the author portraying himself as the protagonist and his family as the dramatis personae, adventure is summoned at every turn of the journey. The thoughts and musings of his wife Tamara, and his daughters Amani and Anaiya bring the book to life, giving the reader a firm sense of presence in the narrative. It would have been interesting to hear more of Tamara’s thoughts and insights about the places she visited, and of what the children thought more. However, I understand this may not have fit into the scope of the book and its intended purpose. There is no doubt that this book will entertain even the most sceptical of minds, allowing their eyes to see beyond dreadful rumours and distorted headlines at the true beauty and brotherhood of a Muslim Europe. As I approached the end of this book, I silently celebrated the enriched concepts of Komsiluk and La Convivencia and wondered whether our little Island may ever experience anything like it.

Facing Darkness Together – how a Muslim Bosnian Scholar and his friend, an Imam, saved the Sarajevo Haggadah

Over the last few weeks, communities have gathered to remember the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including 1.5 million children. Yesterday, I too, found myself reflecting silently at a Holocaust Memorial Service. I had attended alongside my husband, who had been invited to say a prayer, having served the locality as an Imam for over a decade. There was a unified solemnity during the service, as we listened to the harrowing accounts from the Holocaust, and remembered the genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. All of these victims were targeted for one reason only: their identity.

The theme for 2022 was “One Day”, and a Holocaust Fellow of the Imperial War Museum shared some poignant reflections. Soon, it was my husband’s turn to say a prayer. He read a special prayer, written collaboratively by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and Senior Imam Qari Asim. A few verses of the prayer are as follows:

Loving God, we come to you with heavy hearts, remembering the six million Jewish souls murdered during the Holocaust.

In the horrors of that history, when so many groups were targeted because of their identity, and in genocides which followed, we recognise destructive prejudices that drive people apart.

Forgive us when we give space to fear, negativity and hatred of others, simply because they are different from us.

In the light of God, we see everyone as equally precious manifestations of the Divine, and can know the courage to face the darkness.

The words of the prayer spread warm positivity, and filled us with hope. Although history has proven that evil exists, it also proves that good equally exists, and that good will prevail. My trail of thoughts took me to a very special story, of another imam, who had played an important part in protecting the heritage of the Jews during the Nazi terror. This imam was the friend of Bosnian Muslim scholar Dervis Korkut, who famously saved Sarajevo’s Haggadah. In the early hours of one morning in 1942, German Military Authorities were coming for the National Museum in Sarajevo, with the intent of eradicating the Jews’ heritage. The Museum director informed Dervis (he was a translator for visitors), who then acted upon his intuition. Dervis and the Museum Director hurried to the basement of the museum and opened a safe. Inside, was the treasured Sarajevo Haggadah. Dervis hid the sacred manuscript under the waistband of his trousers, and went to meet the Nazi General with a smile. Dervis was careful not to disclose the whereabouts of the Haggadah, all the while, it was hidden beneath his garments while the Nazi General was oblivious!

The General soon left, but Dervis could not rest. With no time to waste, he then hastened towards a village in the Treskavica mountain range, where his friend was the local imam. The imam hid the Haggadah amongst the mosque’s Qurans, where it stayed safely until the war was over. Once the Nazis had left Sarajevo, the imam brought the Haggadah back to Dervis.

More details of this story, and Dervis’ other heroic acts to save Jews can be found here:

https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/the-bosnian-muslim-scholar-who-saved-the-sarajevo-hagaddah-31968

The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the world’s oldest Haggadahs: a magnificent manuscript with gold and silver leaf illuminations. It tells the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah was bought by the National museum towards the end of the 19th century, and still remains till this day.

Leaving the service, I reiterated a verse from the prayer which was read by my husband, and added my own verse:

In the light of God, we see everyone as equally precious manifestations of the Divine, and can know the courage to face the darkness.

May we live amongst each other with love, harmony and in the safety that all our identities will be celebrated.

Amen.

FREE Proofreading Workshops for UCLan students: a Linguistics Project

‘At its best, writing has helped to transform the world.  Revolutions have been started by it.  Oppression has been toppled by it.  And it has enlightened the human condition.’

(The National Commission on Writing 2003)

As inspiring as the above quote might be, the reality is that writing is a laborious task. No one will relate to this statement more than university students. They are the ones who will understand the struggle and effort needed to produce an intellectual masterpiece, from typing the first word of the assignment till clicking that Submit button. So, what if English is not your first language (EAL)? In this case, academic writing will be double the effort. Speaking, reading and writing in a second language are activities that require courage. What is more, research suggests that second-language learners acquire their new language differently to native speakers, and so any type of intervention to help them understand English must be tailored to suit their needs as second-language learners. How can we find out more about this? This is what my dissertation research project sets out to answer.

In answering this question, I am specifically interested in EAL students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, because these subjects demand a particular style of writing that is very technical, and students find it challenging to adapt their writing to this style on a discourse level. Students are required to decode their numerical findings and data into flowing academic prose – this is certainly no mean feat! Therefore, I want to explore how some of these hurdles can be overcome, by designing a programme for EAL STEM students. In this programme, I will introduce students to that final stage of writing: proofreading.

As part of my project, I am investigating whether proofreading workshops for EAL (English as an additional language) students who are studying STEM subjects at UCLan can improve their academic performance. I am offering students the opportunity to attend a FREE six-week proofreading workshops, where they will learn the skills to proofread their own academic work. Students have the opportunity to receive feedback on how to improve their written composition.

Book Review: Myth and Madness by Daniel Hryhorczuk

As I commenced the reading of this book, I found myself placed amidst the cacophony of a political turmoil amongst earnest protesters in a country’s capital city. The focus is on three university students who are passionate about getting their voices heard loud and clear, while also recording events as they unfold. The protagonist is the student recording the protests. He has an unusually deep imagination, because of which he is often dismissed by his companions. As the reader, I found myself unable to make sense of the situation until chapter 3, where the plot eventually starts to come together in a spectacular way. From there on, I was drawn in.  

Myth and Madness is about the healing effect of the mind’s imagination, shown through the eyes of Nick, a university student, whose storytelling abilities often blur the line between fantasy and reality, but this is not always a bad thing for him. He eventually crosses his path with a young and beautiful therapist called Natalka, who, in her own efforts to help Nick during therapy sessions, finds herself coming face to face with her own dark past. 

I appreciated the way in which the writer brought together each of the characters flawlessly in scenes as part of the plot. I experienced moments of surprise, shock, thrill and even trepidation, but I never felt a dull moment while reading this book. It was clear why the book was called “Myth and Madness” instead of, let’s say, “Malice and Murder”: creativity will always outshine cruelty. The most memorable part of the book was the ending, as it symbolised hope and happiness. I always love an ending on a joyous note, where the protagonist is successful in his quest to find his beloved, a true fairy tale ending.

What I enjoyed most while reading this book was that it connected me to a community and culture that is worlds apart from my own. It was my curiosity that led me to find this book: while doing some research on a midwifery internship this summer, I came across some interesting information and decided to delve deeper. In doing so, I stumbled across the bio of the author of Myth and Madness, who is clearly multi-talented. Daniel Hryhorczuk is a Professor of Medicine who also has BA degree in Creative Writing! I have always been eager to learn and read about people who are different to me, as well as my own kind. This leads to respect and tolerance, I believe. Reading this book made me realise that regardless of our differing identities, we are all united in our desire to live together harmoniously, with dignity.

To find out more about the author and his published novels, click here: https://www.danielhryhorczuk.com/bio

A serendipitous reminder: Tafseer of Surah Nasr

September arrived rather hastily this year, as though in a hurry to resume normality. It brought with it an autumnal breeze that carried the currents of renewed hope; another chance at becoming better. I took this opportunity to enrol onto a Tafseer class to understand the deeper meaning of the Quran: the word of God.

Pen and paper were at the ready, but my notebook was not the only canvas to absorb the words describing the divine. The heart too, was feeling a shift. The rust of the heart began to make way for the Light of His wisdom, as the words were recited….

“In the name of Allah, the most Merciful, the Most Kind

When the divine help of God has come and the victory. And you see the people entering the Way of God in huge crowds. Then, glorify the praise of your Lord and seek repentance from Him. Indeed, he is the Acceptor of Repentance.”

The heart embraced these verses and felt a renewed vigour and vitality to serve the One. It recognised that the Lord is more Merciful than can ever be imagined, and that His help is ever-lasting. The heart understood that every loss occurs to bring a greater gain; all we must do is trust Him. Going further, the intellectual faculties were exposed to the beauty of the classical Arabic of the Quran: each and every noun, verb, preposition and grammatical concept encoded divine wisdom. Reaching into the depths, the soul felt a shift towards the spiritual realm, and in that moment, all worldly pursuits seemed futile, when compared to the pursuit of seeking Him.

A promise that must be kept

A recent telephone conversation left me questioning: how long will I continue to encourage those who deliberately misunderstand me? How long will I continue to waste the bullet that is aimed to humiliate me, by perpetually dodging it? It was time, I thought, to review the situation and make a promise.

They say actions speak louder than words. I think words can be pretty loud too. Did the conversation I had yesterday morning make me feel better? No. Well, that is not too bad, but did it make me feel misunderstood? Yes, indeed it did. I shared some good news; it was interpreted that I was ‘being too worrisome’ for good things. I shared how my children had extracurricular activities next week, which was met with sarcasm: ‘everyone seems to have things going on these days’. However, there is nothing more that is hurtful than an untruth, or empty words of endearment. I think that is all I want to say about the situation, since it was a minor defect in my otherwise beautiful day, and life, Alhamdulillah. Here is my promise:

I promise

To help others by not giving them the opportunity to commit the wrong of misunderstanding me,

I promise

To help others by not appearing in front of their eyes, so they are not tempted to humiliate me,

I promise

To help others so they are not tempted to entertain their conscience with untruths about me,

I promise

Not to fall prey to empty words of endearment,

I promise

To show gratitude to my Creator for the unlimited abundance of blessings He has bestowed upon me. He is the Source of all good,

And I promise

To pray for each and everyone who hurt me, in any way, to be forgiven by the Merciful Almighty.

Ameen

The Significance of Collective Worship: Ramadhan Reflections

Through the grace of the Almighty, we were blessed with another Ramadhan this year, the second during a lockdown. All hopes for gathering at the local Masjid for our weekly Ta’leems had gone. Or so I thought. It was only with the advent of the Covid-19 that I began to recognise the value of online and virtual classes. Having completed an entire year of undergraduate study online, I was amazed at what this medium could offer us.

So when one of my dear teachers sent a Zoom link for a daily Taleem in Ramadhan, I wanted to seize the opportunity. To spend those 15 minutes every evening on the Ta’leem session was the highlight of each passing night. That I could just participate in the blessing of such a gathering with the click of a button was something I did not want to take for granted. Even when I missed a few sessions when one of my assignment deadlines approached, my teacher checked up on me, to see if all was OK. This is the system of brotherhood/sisterhood in Islam, which is profoundly beautiful. The sacred teachings are what bind us together with compassion. Nowhere else does such brotherhood/sisterhood exist.

The Ta’leem commenced with the recital of Ahadeeth, after which we engaged in Dhikr Sometimes, a Quran Khatam took place, followed by a collective dua. Collective dua is powerful in bringing Muslims together while bringing them close to their Maker.

I pray that the Almighty rewards my teacher abundantly for her time and effort in arranging and leading these Ta’leem sessions, and enables us all to participate in these gatherings with the best of intentions. Ameen.

FREE Arabic lessons for university students as part of a Teaching Practice Project

Anonymous man working in modern office

If you are a university student studying modern standard Arabic, or even if you are a student studying a completely different course but are learning Arabic, why not take advantage of a few free Upper-Intermediate level Arabic lessons?

Not a university student? You are still welcome!

This year, as well as studying modules on grammar, education and academic writing at university, I am doing a teaching project. With years of experience in teaching Arabic and its grammar to secondary school pupils and adults, my project is centred around pedagogical practices related to Arabic grammar. So while I do the work of preparing lesson plans and writing up a 2000 word supporting commentary reflecting on my teaching style, all you have to do is grab a coffee, join the lessons and enjoy! It will be an opportunity for Arabic learners to build on what they already know, make useful contacts, ask questions, share knowledge, and learn a few new grammatical concepts along the way. Oh, and there is no homework for you. A win-win situation.

So, when are these lessons and what is being taught?

On the first and second Wednesday of March on the following dates:

3rd and 10th March 2021 at 1pm to 2pm GMT.

Where? The lessons will be delivered online via Microsoft Teams.

As for the content, 2 grammatical concepts will be taught. These include: the present tense subjunctive and the present tense jussive.