Stillness in the City
Eyes closed, I breathe into my post-Fajr prostration as chirping morning birds lift my soul beyond myself; I whisper prayers of guidance and gratitude. The cold air hits my face as I walk to my bus stop, but my inner silence holds me in a warm embrace. I slip in an out of consciousness throughout my TTC commute to the U of T. My headphones, playing a calm tune, partially drown out the noise of the subway and its passengers, which gets louder as we get deeper into the city. Each station pulsates with life as masses enter and exit. I finally get off at my stop. Walking to class, I think about Usama Canon’s words during the past weekend’s workshop on the heart – Ghazalian crisis. The shift of heart al-Ghazali had after years of Islamic study, to become the Ghazali we know – walking through the portal of knowledge to gnosis.
I make my way to Bahen after class for Zuhr: my favorite praying spot, with the wide windows and endless light streaming in. It’s open concept, no door to create a barrier between those praying and the swarms of students making their way from one class to another, yet I love that about it. In prostration, time stops, and I sink into my silence as the world around me rushes by. The external noise and movement heighten my internal silence and stillness. I feel myself whole, connect to my infinite source, and I abide in my center. I sit there for an hour, as I often do – my little prayer and reading corner; a pause to meditate on silence and words. Today, I meditate on bell hooks’ All About Love: “remaining open to love was crucial to my academic survival. When the environment you live in and know most intimately does not place a value on loving, a spiritual life provides a place of solace and renewal.” The light shines through the window and calms my heart – yes, this space is my solace and renewal between hours of Criminology and Political Science classes; talks of war, cycles of poverty, violence, criminality, the structures put in place by man to control the vulnerable and disadvantaged – all this weighs heavily on my heart, but I seek peace, release, stillness and silence in my prostration… a space to breathe.
At the Multi-Faith Centre, where I’m interning this year, I sit and work on my upcoming workshop discussions on the poet Rumi. I pray Asr in the room with plants covering the wall and water trickling down – the sound and scent of life during prayer is an unparalleled sensation. I reflect on Rumi and his life – a true mystic seeker. He was another theologian who, after forty years, became intoxicated with the reality of what he knew.
I get on the subway to make it to BB café for my evening shift. Rush hour means packed train, but putting my headphones in, I return to my own quiet world. With my eyes closed, despite the background noise and bodies pressed against me, I go within and smile. Tomorrow is Nowruz, the Persian New Year and the first day of Spring. Though still cold, the snow has begun to melt, and spring can almost be smelled in the air. Working at a Persian café means these days are our busiest days. Busy, busy, busy… I’m working two jobs with six courses this semester – not that I need to, but it’s been keeping me sane. I sometimes feel like I need to keep up with the pace of this city – the busyness, the constant motion, commotion – it can become a form of amnesia, tiring out the body so the mind is silent. Silence dominates within as I begin my shift, greet customers, fill rows and rows of pastries, clean the washrooms, take out the garbage, say yes when they ask me if I can stay longer, smile at the other workers who laugh at me because of my hijab. During my break, I always grab a pastry and tea and read in my corner – this reading, too, contains me, calms me, keeps me silent within. “Bringing love into the work environment can create the necessary transformation that can make any job we do, no matter how menial, a place where workers can express the best of themselves”… hooks lightens my heart and allows me to operate from a place of love, even when all around me seems devoid of it.
I go home, but not wanting to pause, I grab a couple books to return to my mosque’s library, which is only a five-minute drive away. I let myself be embraced by the Centre when I enter; it’s spacious with beautiful carpets and stained-glass windows decorated with the names of God and the ahlul-bayt which, when the light shines through, light up the entire mosque with radiant colours. This is my sanctuary of serenity, my oasis of tranquility – how many years had I prayed here? I head upstairs to the library I spent years taking care of and learning from – endless books of knowledge guiding me. I put back the ones I brought, grab a torbah, and begin my prayer.
My exhausted body sinks into prostration and, feeling myself held by Being itself, I weep. I think of Ghazali, Rumi, my Prophet, and wonder when my knowledge will turn into gnosis. When will I become intoxicated by the reality of my Beloved? My God, carry me to You… I let myself be embraced by the All-Encompassing who hears all prayers. I sob, letting my tears soften my heart, washing off the dust and grime, reawakening it in time for Spring. I rise to finish my prayer and I expand my heart, finding peace in my breath. An infinite calm washes over me, and contentment encompasses me. I whisper prayers of gratitude for my roots which keep me balanced, though my branches may sway, and I finally head home.