Self-Expression & the Clear Image

If you’ve read my piece; ‘Twitter-Presence; Identity, Death & Jahar’, you’ll know that questions of identity have been important to me. People rarely acknowledge that categories of identity classed as normal are not ones anyone would accept outside of their cultural and social framing. Patriotism is really an odd concept if you’re in an environment where you’re not reminded of its signs – if it has no real function to your daily existence, as I’ve found in my life. I think that my dad did talk occasionally about a ‘Kashmiri pride’, but it felt more like he was speaking of it out of interest, like he was referring to it as something tangible now only because we’re away from it, something that might be used like a piece of clothing to wear the way tourists wear ‘I heart New York’ t-shirts. They don’t wear them all the time, they change their clothes, but perhaps there’s a sentimental attachment in so far as it holding memories of a place they once visited –maybe a few family members live in New York, but there’s not much more than that.

I don’t know much about our family background and haven’t been taught to love our ‘heritage’ or ‘land’ or ‘country’, but the lack of knowledge of such things has made me interested since youth. In fact, I was quite bitter as a child about knowing nothing of these things. As a result, an interest in the idea of culture developed. Reading fiction hasn’t helped when filling my head with stories of ancestors, family bonds, destinies, blood lineages, inherited character traits etc. But to take an interest in something you still have a detachment. If you really love something you go beyond taking an interest, you own it, it’s yours. But I’ve always treated culture as something interesting to look at; aesthetics, history, anthropology. I’ve held a fascination for traditions, been drawn to tales of conflict, aggression and suffering. I am my own orientalist. Or – maybe not. Because with this kind of thought all ‘culture’ ends up holding the same superficiality if expressed only as outward show, something fake, an unnecessary addition to an individual. What I realised was that – perhaps because I’m so drawn to writing – real culture is carried within the languages people use.

And so, in opposition to the conscious outward shows of expression of a ‘culture’, or an allegiance to something that would label one as ‘a patriot’, I’ve  always found something more liberating in the idea of the ‘self’ – the ‘individual’; something free of a set category, something much closer to the truth of one’s being.

If you spend a lot of time in reflection, in wonder, writing, drawing – if it’s something you’ve become accustomed to since childhood, you’ve already made yourself very aware of a self – unpolluted by the tyrannies of social flows. You learn how to let your self speak out freely in whatever way you’ve found. Artistic expression today is centred on this. People find themselves and try to make their life more bearable (beautiful even), expressing things people generally don’t want to sit and talk about. You can lay your soul bare on a social media platform, a canvas in a public art exhibition, on a stage blinded in your spotlight.

You realise through the expression you’re able to justify the behaviour that has put you on the edge of acceptance for so long. It’s such a vengeance. Anthony Anaxagorou’s; ‘The Sadness of Art’ comes to mind ( In fact, I remember reading his piece and feeling so justified afterwards. I don’t even know how to describe it. It just felt like finally not being an oddity anymore. Actually – it still felt like I was an oddity, but I didn’t despise myself for it. I remember someone saying to me jokingly once; ‘You’re weird, you know that?’ And I thought to myself; yes – I am – but wait till I’m comfortable with it. That was my ego. In fact, all this self talk is perhaps from a dark place.

A lot of my expression really kicked off from Hip Hop. I don’t go out of my way to hide my previous obsession for it during childhood to teens. It’s not like an unspeakable part of my life or anything like that. What’s actually happened is that I don’t think much about it anymore. You may find my mention of Hip Hop hard to understand – an odd thing to connect to someone like me. The problem with today is that Hip Hop has so many false connotations attached to it; it’s shown as a joke. I came across a lot of middle-class snobbery at university where students only knew it as far as their stereotypes – and I was personally offended by their talk. I don’t need to be an African American born in South Bronx, New York to be offended. Hip Hop knows that because if you ever listen to any serious artist speak on the subject, they’ll tell you it’s all about being comfortable with you. Confidence is key. If you want more insight on that check this speech by Lauryn Hill; And if you want to know about Hip Hop as an art form, check her spoken word; While you’re at it, you can also look at the likes of Amir Sulaiman, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Suheir Hammad.

Who now remembers the roots of Hip Hop as a flow of culture that didn’t even know itself, before the superficial categorisations that come now? Like a flower growing out of the brickwork – like The Rose that Grew from Concrete. I’m not even talking about music; I’m talking about kids on the street rhyming about their day because it’s the only way they felt some kind of agency in their lives. I’m talking about identity ownership in political lyrics and writing and graffiti, where downtrodden people rebel against hegemony and create their own narratives.

Anyway, I haven’t talked like this in a long time. I just want to show you that I’m writing about a Hip Hop very different to the one you’ll probably have heard of. This is the ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’, Def Poetry Jam, Amiri Baraka, ‘I am not my hair’ kind. At 15, I read Tupac’s poems published in ‘The Rose that Grew From Concrete’ with only one thought in mind; I can do that. When I started writing I was in contact with people who were also doing the same thing. The Hip Hop base of poetry doesn’t really talk abstractly in the same way as contemporary poetry. Unlike postmodern poets, Hip Hop artists run on rhyme. What the culture also does is centre itself very much on hyperbole. The way you write is from feeding off other people’s work, you find your mind working to play with language in a way that specifically shows your skill in metaphors, rhyming that doesn’t sound forced and of course – at the highest end of Hip Hop lyricism – references to politics and popular culture. It’s all about leaving the onlookers silenced. When you have people to compete with, the interaction improves the writing and performance. I was never good at the performance part, but the written stuff; rhyme, referencing and metaphors – I used to enjoy a lot.

Away from the hyperbole, what I also realised was that Hip Hop spoken word artists would play on the emotions of their audience. Their subject could be something personal, but it was heightened in such a way that purposely brought about an emotional response. If they talked about history and politics and culture, they would sometimes romanticise certain concepts. I had a conversation with someone not long ago which began with them asking me about whether or not it’s right for an artist to want to ‘feed off’ an audience or have the audience impact their art. And is it right if the artist manipulates the audience’s emotions? Sometimes such expression becomes an intoxication to find something new to be moved by. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that – I haven’t figured that out yet – but it becomes a problem when the thing we’re moved by is our own pain or insecurity, when that becomes an addiction. With this conversation, the self-expression I had always held up as righteous was for the first time being questioned. At first I fought it, I said that artists use the emotions of others to enhance their creativity, that the artist can be moved by his/her audience or the people he/she is creating for by taking their stories and making them into a piece that others can relate to. I also said that artists can’t stand on their own; they come up with their best work by feeding and in competition. And I said to myself that there is beauty in being able to justify one’s own cuts and bruises, in seeking vengeance and helping others to acknowledge themselves. There’s beauty in trying to enhance one’s abilities by seeking to perfect the word so that we can be moved every day.

And then I had to take a step back and think about my own writing and the reasons why I stopped finding peace within it – which is what happened when I became too involved in the concept of mastery over something that was essentially meant to be about sincerity, not self-indulgence.

I stepped away from a lot of stuff. Or actually, a lot of stuff stepped away from me. The ability to write had actually left me not long after I moved away from Hip Hop. Hip Hop was replaced by contemporary poets and literature. I thought the fault was that I was no longer seeking the same inspirations that made me want to better my writing technique, and that if I went back to the lyricism and trying to compete maybe I’d be able to pick up again, but I realised that it felt empty. None of it was me; I was trying too hard to make an identity which didn’t fit – something I previously resisted.

I considered all of these things. I also considered what I loved about the artists from contemporary poetry and literature whose words impacted me, what I was drawn to in their art of expressing and trying to make people feel profound things. I realised I had gone to the excess and I wrote an article which I decided not to publish on here because most of it was half-thought and not well articulated – as much as I tried to make sense of what I was trying to say. But here is an extract;

 ‘The emotionally intelligent, the artists, the poets, the writers, the ones creating those things which cut through you and send you spiralling in awe – do you know how much they’ve got you idolising their creation? I know that passionate mind-set very well. You almost want to be crushed in the strength of human expression because you feed off it. You want to feel something deeply. You need fine concepts, abstract ones that can’t fill in their own spaces and don’t want anyone else to either. The leaders of this movement masquerade as the intelligent, the elect, the darkness, the misunderstood understanding. They’re the ones who weave to you those stories you go to bed with. They’re the Majnuns of this time, forlorn in the effort to call out to Laila. You’re in love with their tears.

They want everyone to read their poems. And they love their scars.’

This was to me a poison of the nafs – the self – in a form that had completely gone unnoticed in my understanding of things. It was a self-indulgence that not one of the artists I loved could have told me about. Most of them don’t want to believe in a greater force, in God. And just as the rest of post-modernity, their art is what takes the place of morality, love, humanity, goodness – making up for the lack of certainty that the human by nature desperately needs. I felt like I had been playing with something dangerous. When it revealed to me its own loneliness – which is all there is to self-indulgence – and its road away from genuine help which is nearness to God (the only One always there when no one else is) I just didn’t understand what was left as an identity to hold onto when I had to cut out the things people normally find grounding in (first culture and patriotism, and now artistic self-expression).

My reaction wasn’t to say that I had completely removed artistic expression. I don’t think I could ever do that. But what I found was a truth; people can find themselves in an unhealthy addiction and false identity, even if they’re trying to oppose those things. But not many people will understand this, because most of us don’t know how high the bar can go, we think we know the expanse of the sky, but we don’t. We actually do have the ability to purify ourselves; an attestation to this is the stories and teachings of those saints who came previous to us. It’s just that we don’t know how. And if you think you can’t relate to this post and I’m just talking madness about artists etc. then please understand that most of us are clinging onto meaningless identities, desires and ego-boosters. And we’re all addicted to something – if not many things – it’s just a case of figuring out what it is for you individually.

I’ve started at page one again and am writing from scratch – this time trying to lessen the control of the nafs, instead trying to find the best way to describe the real essence of things. The truth is that individuality and expression is a God-send. But there’s no better identity than a clear mirror – which is the ultimate aspiration for every human being. The identities we get told we are or should be are like a fog over the clear image. What you’ll find is that it’s far harder to try to remove the unnecessary – especially when you’re trying to grasp what the unnecessary actually is. And the hardest thing in the world is trying to reconcile that clear image (of someone at one with God) with the baggage of this life.

I haven’t meant to attack the vulnerable artist here – far from it. It’s that artist’s disposition that will give them a new way to find Him. It’s just that when you’ve found your passions you have to direct them to the right path. And the final destination of elevation is to only have one passion; the passion towards Him – to want to know Him – which I don’t know how many of us will get to without also having passion for other things. But one thing I do know is that a person who is weakening themselves in a sincere love – even if in excess – is much easier to correct in their object of love (like what happened to Hafiz). It’s much easier to straighten such an individual than someone with arrogance, pride, or who is in the enjoyment of fitting in via superficial categories of identity. In sincere love, people try to do something they genuinely believe is right. And in a selfless love people don’t try to hurt others, which is what I think makes the difference.

Anyway, as an endnote; this post was actually meant to be about individuality, self-expression and hijab, but took a life of its own! So I might write about that next time. You may or may not agree with what I’ve written here, which is understandable because I’m not sure how many would share these views. But whether or not you agree, if all of this makes complete sense to you then you’ve accomplished more than I can at this current point in time. Maybe you can teach me.


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