The Fast and the (definitely not) Furious: Ramadan at Work

Last week or so, a few colleagues and I thought it would be a good idea to mark the coming of Ramadan in some way, so we brought suitably calorific goodies into work and sent out a little message to our team about what the month meant to us. We received a response that we, and certainly I was not expecting; many insightful comments and a lot of very thoughtful questions which showed me how people can value the diversity colleagues bring from the, outside in (especially if it is accompanied by a snack or two!). I was then asked to write a blog about Ramadan for work which I thought I would share more widely.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar begins next week. It is an important time for the Muslim community. At its core, the month is about giving more and consuming less; patience over instant gratification, reflecting rather than reacting and thinking of others over our selves.

Most people associate Ramadan with not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. In the UK this works like a charm when Ramadan comes around in winter, slightly less so when it falls over one of the longest days of the year. In the good old days, before sugar became the new poison and bread could be consumed guilt-free, the idea of fasting seemed novel. When I used to explain the concept of fasting to people who hadn’t heard it before I would usually get some surprise tinged with (I like to think) a little awe and respect. Now, the idea of detoxing as becomes so irritatingly fashionable the reactions are different.

Just recently, I was talking about Ramadan to a very health-conscious neighbour, “So what do you eat when you are not fasting”, she asked. I explained that the fast was punctuated by two big meals on either side, a breakfast called suhoor and an enormous dinner called iftaar. What exactly is eaten in these meals is culture specific but traditionally milk, dates and copious amounts of water will feature. “Aah”, she said. “So you mean you can eat carbs…fat…gluten and caffeine?” “Yes, yes and yes”, I said thinking about how much I enjoy the feeling of my sip of caffeine at the end of my fast, the crunch of a greasy samosa and a red velvet cupcake for my iftaar, “it’s the only time I feel I deserve to eat everything” I said laughing. “Interesting”, she continued, clearly disappointed by my lack of self control “I will be doing a complete detox in June for a week. No carbs or fat for me!” My turn to be surprised and more than awed by the thought of that kind of fasting…

Fasting in this month though is not only about not physical abstinence. Equally important is controlling behaviour- no lying, cheating and certainly, as my teachers liked to remind me in my teenage years growing up in Pakistan, you are absolutely not allowed to get the grumps. In a moment of what I have come to regard as pure insanity, I shared this with my then 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter last Ramadan. “So you mean you are not allowed to get angry?”, they asked innocently, and then with a determination known only to little people proceeded to test this over the next 29 days. “Now now mum, we have been using your phone to take 200 pictures of the left dining chair leg but you can’t get angry. Remember. It’s not allowed” etc etc. I spent that Ramadan hopping around like like Master Shifu from Kung Fu Panda trying to find inner peace but not quite getting there.

Not all Muslims fast and it is certainly not advised for the very young, the very old, the sick or those bringing new life into the world. My husband doesn’t fast and for this he is required to give charity equivalent to feeding three square meals a day. In actual fact, he pays much more. You see, as I am fasting, and he isn’t, he becomes the go-to parent in the evening by default. Children homework duties. Nightmare duties. Lego-stuck-in nose-emergencies.   Forgot-school fair-bake- cupcake-last-minutes duties, all fall to him. It’s brilliant. By the end of the month I am spiritually and physically refreshed while he poor him, looks completely exhausted…

That is one reason I love this month. There are several other (less calculating) reasons. The three top ones for me would be:

  • It forces me to stop, stop running from work task lists to home ones and pause and reflect on life and living.
  • It prompts me to think about lives less fortunate than mine and imagine what it must feel like to be endlessly hungry and not know when and where my next meal may come from.
  • It makes me practice patience. In our current culture of instant access to gratification, it is so educational to experience waiting.

Is fasting difficult at work? To be very honest, yes. There are the embarrassing tummy rumbles at important meetings. There is the lack of caffeine to prop you up through the day. Fasting during the summer months are very long and I find that although our bodies are remarkably adaptable when it comes to food and drink, they are less forgiving when it comes to lack of sleep. And given the length of the day there is definitely interrupted sleep especially during the last ten nights of the month which many Muslims may spend in additional prayers. At these times, managers who support flexible working and colleagues who don’t put in meetings late in the day in diaries become extremely valued.

It’s not all bad though and there are certainly benefits for work as well.

  • I find I really value coming into work, the busier the better, as the day dissolves quickly when you have a lot to do. Weekends are killers.
  • At lunch, I go for a walk. This I think does more for more productivity than a sandwich slumped over my laptop
  • I find I am ruthlessly pragmatic with myself about what I can do during the work day and therefore I plan and set expectations more effectively. I also get remarkably good at prioritising.
  • Most importantly for me, I become good at listening to others (especially at the end of the day when my energy levels are low!). This at all times is very useful.

Those are things that I practice this month that improve the way I work. There are many many other lessons on life and living. Like any L& D activity though the challenge is always making that learning stick.


My Small Wonder

When I was six my mamu gave me taped episodes of a programme called ‘Small Wonder’. It was a programme about a family with an inventor father, mother, son, daughter and a girl robot. The girl robot, Vicky (with a V) is part of the family, disguised as a distant niece.  Everyone treats her like she is a child. She tries very hard to pretend to be a child. She imitates actions. She repeats dialogue. She even invents a laugh. She is nearly like any other child. Nearly.

I loved those episodes. I watched them over and over again till that VHS tape reel hung out from the edges. Somehow even at six I knew I would have a child-that-was-nearly-like-any-other-child. Even at six I knew I would have a small wonder.

My son was born what seems like yesterday.

He laughed cried, hugged, kissed, pooped, had high fevers, crawled, sang, vomited, watched baby TV, tickled, and smelt of lemons and roses. He loved the colour red. He loved crawling under small spaces. He loved using his thumb to trace my shoulder bone.

He did not love the playground unless he was the only one there. He did not talk. He did not share.  He did not chew solids. He did not play with any ‘stimulating, good-for-hand-eye-coordination’ toy we got him. He did not know what to do when I asked him to do simple things like putting a cup on the table or giving the tissue box to his dadi.

He had a look that terrified me. An expression in his eyes that said he was dreaming about belonging to a world other than the one he was in. It terrified me, fear wrapping itself around my heart and squeezing out any hope, dream, and thought of the future. A fear that kept telling me that he would wander off to this other world in his head and never make his way back home, never make it back to me.

And then he fell in love. He discovered the alphabet. His eyes gleamed with excitement as he put A, B,Cs in the right order, as his pudgy fingers traced the curve of the ‘S’ and the peaks of an ‘M’. But his favourite was the letter ‘V’. He would try and spot it everywhere at the back of delivery vans, volvos and Venus drycleaners (we could take our dry cleaning nowhere else after that). He could read letters out loud before he learnt to say his name (or mine).  He started reading small words at two. He started typing out words soon after.  He was reading fluently at three.

Reading gave him a map to the world.  He learnt about giraffes that dance when they have the right tune and some dogs that can fly. He learnt about how zebras got their stripes and how small ladybirds can defoil robberies. He learnt about smart giants, magic beans, Neverland, witches and broomsticks and the magic far away tree. He read and read and read finding clues about how the world worked. The best thing was that he could do this himself. He didn’t need a translator. But then the reading became a source of extreme frustration. You see, he now had access to dreams, ideas and thoughts of others but he couldn’t express his own. He was absorbing the outside at an exponential rate but he still couldn’t express his thoughts, dreams and ideas. It was verbal constipation at its extreme.

We dealt with it as best as we could. There was speech and language therapy to help him put his thoughts into words.  And there was occupational therapy to help him (another other things) put his thoughts into writing. We used every opportunity to develop his speech, narrow and gross motor skills. Showers became an opportunity to trace letters on the steamed glass. Catching balloons became exercises in bilateral hand coordination. Straws became instruments to blow bubbles and paper across tables. His favourite toys were thrown into sand, water, shaving foam, jelly to get him to access different textures. Mattresses became battle grounds. Pillow fights, blankets, nail cleaning brushes became sensory experiences.

There were many successes. But the writing…the writing never came. The outline of the letters would start forming but very slowly would fizzle out into bits and bumps. School started. Yes yes he was good at reading. But there is no inference. No imagination. No writing. No answers. No intelligence.

There were more exercises. More writing programmes, Handwriting without Tears, Write Dance. I knew all those exercises were doing something. Building muscles maybe? Stretching ligaments and developing strength so his hands could push his thoughts onto paper. It was as if his fingers were standing there ready at the starting line waiting for the sound of a gunshot that never came.

Then one summer afternoon, both of us exhausted from another OT session lay exhausted in the garden. I had a pink chalk in my hand and I lazily started scrawling letters on the ground started making up stories about each letter. The ‘E’ was mama dropping off his sister to nursery first and then him to school, the ‘8’ was mama running around his circles having forgotten something at home, the ‘Z’ was papa zipping from work through the roadworks on our street. He laughed. I laughed. The fingers heard their gun shot.

That day he started writing and didn’t stop. There was the ‘normal’ writing which delighted his teachers. Then he set his eyes on cursive joining writing. His teachers said no, he wouldn’t be able but this was where his selective hearing was very useful. His fingers danced out beautiful cursive writing. And now because he could express himself with his fingers as he never could (or can) with his lips the school suddenly found he was brilliant. His inference was suddenly beyond his years. He suddenly had brilliant imagination with stories about one-tooth monsters and alien postal workers. He knew answers to their questions.

And then there were the letters. There were letters to love-starved grand parents. Letters to long visited cousins. Letters to us. He had so much to say, memories he had been saving up for years. If he would run into a classmate in the playground he would start writing a letter to them: sorry for missing your party one year ago I wasn’t feeling well, you looked very pretty at so and so’s party, can you come to my house for a play date?

Technically children like him don’t have the narrow motor skills to write. Technically children like him are not supposed to be good at creative writing. Technically children like him are not supposed to be good at inference or at math word problems. But love and laughter are funny things. They make technically impossible things possible. Especially when the love is for a letter like ‘V’. A letter that rises  gracefully upwards after it hits line bottom. It is now my favorite letter too.

So…are you happy?

So…are you happy?”

Ten years ago, if I would have asked my friends the question, “Are you happy?” most would have said, “Yes!” There was the hope of prestigious careers: select graduate schemes in the Big Four, a Fulbright scholarship, a job dedicated to eradicating polio in Pakistan. There was the promise of romance. The gallant husband who had planned the honeymoon in Venice, the one who enticed with the LSE or Colombia degree “right away ” after marriage, and the one who was simply “so cute na!” For some there was already the Johnson-scented whiff of motherhood, the joy of the first step, the first word and then the first birthday for Goopoo with the giant racing car themed birthday cake. For the others for whom life had already been rough there was the promise of a better life, a series of white, fresh tomorrows that would make up for the grey yesterdays.


To be honest, ten years ago I wouldn’t have even thought to ask anyone the question. It would have been silly, pretentious. Awkward. Stupid. Ten years, past the question doesn’t seem so silly anymore. It seems real. The start of an honest conversation.

My question is first met with silence. A deafening pause punctuated by the slow clinking of spoons against mugs of chai. The careers are now less glamorous. There are long hours and a lot of competition. Polio in Pakistan remains. It seems changing the world is beyond one person. The picture of the honeymoon in Venice is there on the mantelpiece in that house with vanilla scented candles, plump Khaddi cushions and other happy memories, but most travel in the family now are husband work trips. The LSE/Colombia degrees never happened. The children came fast and early. And that cute husband has now lost his hair. Goopoo has outgrowth racing cars but not wetting his bed. The doctor says the triggers are emotional.

Then begin references to the search of the elusive “something”, “I don’t know what I want. But I want something. I want to do something”.


“I don’t know. Something. For me. Around the kids timings, you know…”

Research assures us this mid-life dip is normal. Apparently all of us go through this low sometime between our thirties and fifties when all that we thought possible chaffs uncomfortably against reality. This is not true just for humans. Apparently apes hit this dip too.

Study on happiness






But I don’t think the “dip” is natural or inevitable. A lot of it is design. For when we are young and havent yet lived, we are  given a map to happiness . We are told we have to study hard and graduate. We are told we have to find careers that gave our lives meaning. We are told we have to fall in love and get married. We are told we should have children. We have to have houses with vanilla scented candles, plumped up cushions and kitchen windows that look out to rose bushes. [This happens in all cultures but it is particularly acute for desis where the “Aunty” – the ultimate True and Genuine custodian and chief propagator of happiness- encodes this formula into our DNA . Especially important to desi happiness is marriage which is the only really only route to independence, adulthood and of course happiness.]  And we somehow we come to beleive that once we have followed these directions, this map to happiness, we will arrive at our “happily ever afters”. We are wrong. The map is wrong. There is NO map [damn you Aunty].

I am not saying that an education, a job or being married or child are not important. Of course they are and a source of happiness, pride, belonging….but they are also a source of pain, anger, stress and sometimes terror. Remember the touch of their baby skin against yours, and the feeling of pure belonging that comes from knowing that their life is completely dependent on yours? Now remember the terror of that night when you sat through holding them as they shivered through, their tiny body racked with a fever that wrung their insides. Remember the heady smell of roses mixed with wood of your marriage and all the time that lived yet to come? Now think the smell of socks that never (never) make their way to a laundry basket but live beside beds and sofas where you are likely to see them for the rest of your lives together (unless you pick them up. Which you do. Every time). Remember the high of that work presentation, the one where you wore that confidence as easily as that tailored black suit, and convinced the audience of your message. Now think of all the times you when into meetings believing it was the day that everyone else would find out that you actually know nothing…

Marriage, children, work are important stages in our journey through life but  they cannot in themselves, automatically make us happy.  On the contrary, I think to be successful at  relationships in work or at home we need to have found that calm happiness within ourselves that is impervious to time, space or sharing.  And although other people and life-happenings have the power to make you terribly unhappy, the one and only person that deliver that kind of happiness for you is : You.

So my suggestion for this year for you is to spend some time getting reintroduced to yourself. And find out what it is that makes you “calm happy”, the “something”. Then do a little bit of it and then a little bit more. Some of my friends are already there. There are food blogs that have grown into a network of culinary connections. There are marathons for cancer. There is going back to LSE/Colombia/school (themselves). If you want more suggestions of what it is for you, you may want to look at what an LSE professor has to say about it:

Five things you can do to be happier right now

What makes me happy? Writing. I don’t care if I can only tango clumsily with words across the page, it is what makes me happy. I feel like when I am writing I am not pretending or being what someone wants to be. The only person I am being is myself. When I write, I find myself. Now that I know this I am going to be more determined about blogging. That will make me happy. For you reading it, I  hope it does the same…:-)




It wasn’t me

It wasn't me, I say,
My religion is one of peace,
We turn to nothing but prayer
In hardship 
And in ease

It wasn't me, I say
I believe in an Almighty God
Then how can I but a simple Man
Dare to look inside you,
Dare to judge

It wasn't me, I say
How could I be violent?
I fast,a month,a year
To learn to control my Self
My deepest insecurity, my worst fear

It wasn't me, I say
I know the difference
Between the ignorant and the wise
I know we are the same
Only our extremes collide

It wasn't me, I say
Then why does my head droop with such shame?
Why do my hands clench and unclench
Why is it that when they ask who did it.
I want to take my name

It wasn't me, 
I hear myself shout
Then why do I feel this Guilt
Maybe because the day when I should have spoken
Only Silence had come out

You and I

You and I

There was our first goodbye

And then so many others

Their whispery echoes

Have long become quiet

Even my memories

Have had to let go


We didn’t cut

The rope that bound us

In one clean slit

Its untwisting was slower


A slow drifting from your shores


One day I woke up

And I was no longer


It wasn’t your name

I filled on official forms

Not your identity I took as my own


There were others I came to love- I admit

Over the meeting of desert and ocean

And in the silent moonlit snow

Our memories of summer monsoons

Playing hopscotch over commotion

Becoming an ever distant glow


I tell myself places don’t matter

It is the principles we live by that are key

Why is it then when they kill your children?

To make you ever more noble and pure

I can feel someone’s hands sticky with blood

And that someone is me


Why is it when they strangle your soul?

Destroy you, your grace, your dignity,

Your future and

Your dreams

I can feel their hands around my neck

I can hear your silent screams


Why it is Pakistan

When we no longer belong?

That now you lay


I die a little

Each day too





Good Immigrant Series: Of rights and responsibilities

Good Immigrant Series: Of rights and responsibilities

Growing up there was very little you couldn’t talk to my grandmothers about. My Nani and Dadi, having lived through, the breaking and making of countries,  and an ever- changing definition of what was ‘modern’ were more accepting of the new than the generations that came after them. But there were two things we were advised not to ask my Nani about. First and top of the list was The Other Woman my nana almost married. The second was asking her about her the driving tests she failed when she first moved to Canada after my Nana had passed away. This blog is about the second Unmentionable Thing (although I agree the first one would be pretty interesting too).

So my Nani who could swerve through traffic in Saddar Karachi and somehow managed to make driving a Hyundai in Islamabad look regal failed to get a driving license in Toronto. Twice. The reason wasn’t the left hand drive, or the automatic cars. The reason was that she didn’t claim her Right of Way. “But the other person has to give way”, her driving instructor would say exasperatedly and she would try… but the moment she saw another car approaching on a turning she would slow down automatically. It was impossible for her having spent her whole life driving on instinct expecting her rights to be disrespected to suddenly drive as if they mattered.

The point I am trying to make is not about the difficulties file7721250863811 immigrants have in driving  (the nationality of most taxi drivers in countries that attract immigrants would say otherwise) but it is a point about how differently immigrants treat rights compared with someone who has been born with them. Imagine  coming from somewhere where your identity means that you don’t even have the right to live to a place where there are rights to healthcare, rights to education, freedom to speak, freedom to believe, rights of way, rights not be discriminated against…It is not that immigrants wont come to know these rights and may even come to demand them. But it is never with the  confidence of people that have been born with them that seem to wear their rights as comfortably next to their skin as cotton in a monsoon summer. Immigrants of a certain kind seem to hold theirs awkwardly, tentatively as if they don’t really think they exist.

In Pakistan, one doesn’t have rights but one has relationships. When formal institutions don’t work informal ones like social networks have to substitute. So in Pakistan it is not about rights but about who you know can get you a bed in a public hospital, get your case registered with the police, even death threats neutralised.  This network of relationships may be informal but it is a highly complex system of favours and obligations not dissimilar to the debits and credits of an accounting system. The cynic in me thinks that this is why people in Pakistan invest so much in relationships –  the long list of invitees in weddings, the dinners, the need to appear to be pious above all else, the need not to upset anyone by unnecessary challenge…to me a lot of it is not culture but calculation.

Which is why it was difficult for me personally – as educated as a person I think I am, to experience rights. From the first time traffic stopped for me on a zebra crossing to the time my first born came into the world needing extra health care and getting it with nurses and paediatricians checking on him every four hours until the infection had left his body. He got that service not because I paid for it. Not because I knew who ran the hospital or even the doctor that looked at him. He got it because it was his right. Similarly, when he was older and went to school he needed extra services. The school would give me forms to fill in and applications to make so I could access it through our local Council. My response to this was always, ‘oh don’t worry I can pay for this’. The teachers would nod their head and say, “ok Mrs Agha but lets try this first”. For them I was probably an extremely insecure,individual who wanted to remind everyone every second that I could pay for things. For me though it was a case of being totally perplexed by this idea that the system would look after my child in that way. My intention and the interpretation were probably very different.

(There is a case though of a society becoming too self-right-eous (haha)…see my blog:…-miss-pakistan .

One serious consequence of not understanding rights is that often it means you don’t understand your responsibilities either. I remember the day someone first came asking me who my local MP was and me not knowing. They laughed and said they would teach me something about civic responsibility (which of course they did by simply asking me that question). I hadn’t at that point understood that my right to vote came with a responsibility to use it effectively. Equally the right to free healthcare means a responsibility of some kind not to abuse the system, to keep your appointments I imagine and even to be healthy. The right to free schooling means some kind of responsibility to contribute to the school in some way either through PTAs or school fairs. You will have other examples.

Which is why I think in the oaths and pledges you have to take when you officially adopt a different country should not only remind you of the responsibilities that you have towards your new country but should also remind you of all the rights that being a citizen of that country gives you. That would be a start to being better at both our rights and responsibilities. Because you really cant have one without the other.

The Good Immigrant Series: Why this blog?

The incident happened this time last year. I was out with my children in a park somewhere in the south-west of London. Usually the sun here is so tentative, so insecure cautiously tip toeing across summer. But this day it was different, felt different, brimming with warm confidence.

Everyone was in the park: old ladies perched on benches, grateful mothers slapping on otherwise-full sun screen bottles on vitamin-D deprived pale faces, grateful dogs taking their owners for a walk; squirrels chasing birds; daffodils that had stubbornly pushed through the earth to drink in the sunshine.

There was a girl, around four or five, pedalling away on her bicycle. The bicycle with pretty pink and white strings, wobbled left to right as her legs – probably used to stabilisers not too long ago  – tried their best to balance. At some point on her second loop around a path park she went a right too far and fell over. She was well-protected in way children here are – knee pads and helmet – but the shock was enough to get her wailing.

Very quickly she was approached by an old man who had been sitting on a bench close by. He was old, balding with little tufts of white hair on either end. His dark brown skin meant that he probably had been born in a country far warmer than this one. He had a stick next to him and smart winter coat and I imagined a faint whiff of naphthalene balls. He smiled warmly at the girl, and asked whether she was ok. She shocked pointed to her elbow, which he proceeded to clean with a tissue. Next he fished out a chupa chup lollipop from his coat and offered it to the girl smiling warmly. She smiled shyly and reached for the lollipop.

From behind us approached the mother running pulling a small poodle behind her. She looked at the old man, at the fallen bicycle, at the tissue with a blot of blood, at the scraped elbow and the offensive lollipop and I could see, hear, and feel her cringe. She mumbled, ‘no thank you’  at the lollipop, picked the girl up abruptly and put her back on the bike, tugging at the leash of her poodle who was sniffing the old man. ‘No problem’, the man said to the mother, pushing the lollipop back in a way that you do in a country where offering and rejecting is part of social play. She turned around with a frown this time saying, ‘no thank you’  loudly and firmly. Her words seemed to take on a physical shape against the old man who staggered back to the bench looking bewildered in the way that old people do when they no longer understand the world around them.

There was a large gap between the intention of the old man, who so obviously belonged to a time and place where one could talk to, comfort and offer sugar to a child that was not ones own, and the woman, who belonged to a time of Jimmy Saville news stories, food allergies and helicopter parenting. There was nothing wrong with either the intention or the interpretation except the distance between them.

I think about that particular incident a lot. I think about a lot of other instances too. Am sure you who live in mixed communities will have your own examples of these unsuccessful interactions. Most policies that worry about people of different cultures living together, call it what you may integration or multiculturalism or cultural cohesion, talk about English language lessons and lessons in history. Those may be important first steps but they are not enough. You can speak the same language yet have so much lost in cultural translation. You can have all the facts about a country on your fingertips yet understand so little.

In my days working in international development, I went to Pakistan  as an external consultant for two weeks. Since I was part of a team, I was treated like any other outsider and given a pack at the airport full of facts about the country explaining social conventions like ‘don’t get shocked at men holding hands in a marketplace. It is completely normal.’  I look back to that now and think wouldn’t it be nice to have had a pack when I moved to the UK to make a home. Full of advice like: ‘what to do when someone pretends to know all about where you come from because of their gap year in India (even though you are still struggling to understand theirs after five)’ and other stories.


This blog and the ones to follow aren’t exactly that ‘pack’ but they are my stories of things –that-I-have-found-difficult-to-understand and-have-now-found-a-way-around. Hopefully through this blog I can hear about your stories too and we can find some way of having those conversations which never happen because we are too busy pretending that we are very comfortable living around identities that are different to ours.

We are very far away from a place where we are able to wear more that one identitiy comfortably next to our skin. But we have to try. Because as we can see from what is happening in the world today the cost  –  of unsuccessful interactions and confused identities  with our children preferring a violent, vicious identity over having two confused ones – is one we can no longer afford.