One of the peculiar sensations seasoned wayfarers fail to mention, as you pack your bags in preparation for your journey to heaven-scented-sacred-lands, is what happens to you when you return home. They tell you who you will meet, whose feet you will sit at, what you will eat, who you will eat with, how different the water tastes; they tell you about the sunsets and how you can see every single star in the sky; they tell you how illuminating the moon looks, about the mystical encounters you will have with mystical people, but they fail to mention what happens to your heart when it is time to return to the concrete jungle.
How could they possibly articulate how your heart will ache, as the sacred city you once called home, now shrinks into the background and how you will desperately cling onto your memories as though your lungs depend on them for breathing. No one tells you how your soul will weep in agony because she knows that no-matter how hard you try, the bright lights of the big city will eventually drown her out. No one tells you about the flight home, the smell of the aeroplane and synthetic food, no one tells you about border control in London, the abrasive lights and how the harsh attitude of the customs officers clash with the light dancing in your heart. No one tells you how to cope.
In 2014 I spent 9 months living in the blessed city of Medina Baye in Senegal – an African Medina that many say contains the fragrance of the illuminated city of the final Prophet (pbuh) and a place the Mauritanian poets say ‘shares in the secret after that which it is named.’ The first two months were spent with my husband and the subsequent seven months were spent alone to continue my soul’s journey. I lived in a simple room within the estate of Imam Tijani Cisse. My entire time was spent living in manifest gratitude. Even with my body burning in deep fever from malaria during the hottest time of the year, I was grateful. Even with my head arched over the toilet bowl vomiting my life away as my husband held my hair back, I was grateful. Even when I felt so very isolated from loved ones back home, I was grateful. Every inhale said ‘Al Hamdullilah’ and every exhale said ‘wa Shukrillilah’ for here I was, a female seeker, a twenty first century wayfarer, a student on the path towards nearness to God, like those ancient Sufis I had read about whose devotion to God I yearned for. All I needed was my prayer mat over my shoulder and tasbih in my hands, with beads passing through my fingertips like the planets in orbit, constantly. The constant companion upon my lips was salawat ‘Allahumma salli ala sayyidina Muhammed al fatihi…’ My days and nights were for God. My sleeping, my waking, my eating, my everything was for Him and by night I would yearn to see his beloved in my dreams (pbuh).
My garments were the simple attire of the desert women- one piece of fabric wrapped and knotted; the most expensive was £7 (most others were gifts), the sandals on my feel no more than £2- so simple, yet I have never felt more beautiful. I had an infrequent water supply; I ‘showered’ using a bucket and washed (most of) my own clothes by hand. Everyday I made decisions based on what my soul wanted to do: which part of the sacred mosque will I pray in today? How much Quran will I read? How much sadaqa will I give? How much dhikr will I make? Who will I pray for? How long will I stay in the final resting place of the saints of the city? Which Friend of God will I have dinner with? Friends would comment on how I would converse with myself and with God aloud, literally, when making these decisions. I was on a journey and my soul was my closest companion.
On the days leading up to my return I would weep heavily; if my body were a country its inhabitants would have drowned underwater. But the tears were from a place deeper than my emotions- my spirit was crying, and I knew why. In this place my soul was the priority, and we both knew that going back to London things would not be the same. I remember writing a post on Facebook entitled, ‘London, please be gentle’ because I was afraid. I met a better version of myself out there, and I liked her; I liked how devout and focused I could be in the way of God, how dependent I was upon Him for everything and how lightly I travelled.
My dreams were more profound, my intuition acute, my insight accurate. I knew, of course, that this was a consequence of the abode that I called home, and the spiritual giants that I lived amongst, but within I felt as though I was changing and I was afraid of losing the baraka. After I prayed my last Fajr prayer in Medina, I went to see Imam Tijani, eyes red, puffy, damp – he looked at me and said “You’re leaving today? Come and see me after Asr.” No one tells you how to conduct yourself the last time you see a man who was like a father to you, who housed you, fed you, paid for your medication when you were unwell and allowed you the opportunity to experience God within this city. I was ill prepared for the last time I visited my sister, teacher and confidante Hajjiya Kubra Askari-Cisse, the one who opened up God’s book for me, taught me how to read and experience God’s words for myself. The one who was the feminine reflection of my Shaykh, whose rooftop I would spend countless evenings on, talking into the night under a blanket of stars. No one can tell you how to act the last time you go to see your Shaykh, how it will feel to raise your cupped hands after he does, in anticipation of the heavenly blessings from the unseen that will pour into your palms; no one can teach you how to conduct yourself, how to hold it together. No one tells you how deeply you wish the day would never end, but stretch into eternity.
I arrived back in London overjoyed to see my loved ones, but overly sensitive to my city’s harshness. I was living in Shepherd’s Bush at the time and the pace, noise and sheer volume of people almost swallowed me whole. I remember the first time I travelled from West London to East London on the underground with a friend; I remember feeling as though there was so much pain in the people, in the city as a whole- and it hurt. It felt like I was absorbing the sorrow and sickness and it was overwhelming. I would talk to people and feel their trauma before they started speaking. I was afraid to watch TV, afraid to engage too much with social media, afraid to engage in frivolous conversations as I feared losing the light within me. I felt like an alien from a different planet who was on an extended layover on Earth and I desperately wanted to go back to my own galaxy.
I tried to maintain my level of worship but I couldn’t and I felt guilty, disappointed in myself, like God had abandoned me because I thought I had abandoned Him. I could not be the ‘higher’ version of me, I could not be as devout and I gradually drifted into a kind of spiritual depression. One day a beloved friend said to me “your eyes look so sad.” Eyes are indeed windows into the soul and she was right, I felt lost. It was hard for me to stay in touch with people back in Medina; I stopped writing and sharing because I felt like no-one would be interested in what I was going through now. I used to write so frequently from Medina, and friends and strangers alike would send me messages inspired by my journey; how could I go from talking about the sanctity of worship and nearness to Allah in Medina Baye to talking about this harsh thud back to Earth that I was experiencing in London? I didn’t know how to articulate it. Looking back, I’m grateful to those near me who were patient.
Every time I closed my eyes I was back in Senegal, I had a very specific routine that I followed whilst there, paths that I walked day-in, day-out for 9 months, so when I closed my eyes my spirit was transported right back there, travelling through the village, taking me back to visit and I had so many dreams of the place my soul called home. At times it felt like I had astrally projected there, my spirit haunting the city like a benevolent ghost. I called Shaykh Mahy one day and asked him if it was normal for me to be feeling this low and distraught after having spent so long in such a special place; he said “Yes, it is normal” and told me to “say ‘Al Hamdullilah‘ because Allah only tests those whom He loves.“
During the late Autumn I eventually surrendered to the reality of my return and to my state. I likened myself to the rusty-orange coloured leaves as they danced delicately from the trees. I was falling but that was part of my journey, I couldn’t fight it, I just had to let go and let the continuation of my journey unfold. Light and darkness, jamal and jalal -this was the flip side to the coin of my spiritual journey.
Could I still be engaged in manifest gratitude? Could my footsteps still walk to the sound of Al Hamdullilah when my life was not as I would have liked it to be? Could I still be near to God and be good with God anywhere on the globe? Is God only near when I am in Medina? Is God only good when I am good? Is it even about me? Is Allah not Ar Rahman, Ar Rahim, As Salaam, Al Latif with or without me?
I came full circle when I had the chance to visit Medina Baye two years later during the last ten days of Ramadan. I went to my favourite place in the city, the final resting place of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (ra) and wept and wept until the answer came to me – that Allah is never absent- it was me who was absent. Allah had not turned His back on me, rather I had turned from Him and all I had to do was take steps towards Him and He would run towards me. Allah is the First (Al Awwal) the Last (Al Akhir) the Manifest (Az Zahir) and the Hidden (Al Baatin) of which I have no doubt.
So here I am back in London and I am learning that Medina Baye is not just a place but a ‘state’ that can be accessed wherever I find myself. I am finding my balance and striving for God in my highs and lows, in my imperfections and my flaws because I am human after all and He is All Loving, All Knowing, All Merciful before and after it all.