Friday, 9 September 2011

Found in Translation

I have been trying to write this post for the last three weeks, ever since I came back from Istanbul where my novel “When the Mountains are scattered as Dust” was published by Kaknüs in Turkish as Hakikati Arayan Kadin. For some reason I struggle to express clearly what I feel about this unexpected recognition.

Let me start with the easy task of telling you how the publication came about. If you are a believer like me you will probably agree with me, after hearing the story, that God is the best of planners. I couldn’t possibly have orchestrated the whole affair. If you don’t believe in a Higher Power, then you will call me lucky. Here is what happened.

I have been working on a novel set in 7th century Saudi Arabia for over a year. This was the time when the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, emerged with his divine message amongst his people. I have been desperately searching to find literature in English or German that gives me details of daily life during that time, be it amongst the desert Bedouin tribes or the city dwellers of Mecca and Medina. While trying to find material online I came across an English website dedicated to the life story of the prophet Muhammad. I e-mailed them and asked for help. I got a reply from a woman, telling me that she knew of no English resources available, but that she had had a look at my blog. She was interested in reviewing my book. Could I send her a copy? I did. Only then did I find out that the editor of the website was based in Istanbul. In the end she didn’t think the novel suitable for a review on their website but she liked it so much that she passed it on to publisher friends of hers who eventually decided to publish it in Turkish.
All the negotiations were done by e-mail, the contract posted by snail mail. I didn’t actually meet the publishers, or the translator and editor, until the book was launched during Ramadan, three weeks ago.

This is the story on the outside. Very straight forward, no headaches whatsoever. Just before leaving for Istanbul I started to watch myself closely, taking note that I was getting excited about the prospect of spending a week in Istanbul, especially during the month of Ramadan. This is a holy month for Muslims that we spend fasting during the daylight hours. Fasting in this context means no food or drink is allowed to pass your lips. I did not mind getting excited about spending part of Ramadan in a Muslim country, what I got worried about was whether I was getting excited about the publication, about the attention I would get as an author. I judged myself as level-headed and neutral. In fact I had to force myself to tell people why I was leaving for Istanbul so suddenly. The publishers had not given me much notice. I think the real reason I was not letting myself get excited about the publication was the fact that I had been told that I would have to give interviews. Rather than worry about interviews I pushed the whole affair to the back of my mind. I can honestly say that I did not think about the issue until I sat opposite the first journalist who wanted to hear my story. Only when I was told how many interviews I had to give over the next three days, and that they were with national daily papers and weekly/fortnightly magazines, did I acknowledge the tremendous effort that my publisher had made to draw attention to my book. I was amazed by what they had achieved. I was, after all, an unknown first-time author.

They were a husband-and- wife team who were not only excellent in their field of work but also kind human beings who made sure that I was at ease, who welcomed my husband and daughter as much as they welcomed me.

To my surprise I enjoyed talking to the journalists. Most of them did not speak English and we depended on a translator for communication. The only downside was that I had to repeat my personal story, how I became a Muslim, over and over again. I found this very tiring and sometimes I let the translator tell the story. I joked that she will soon know my life story better than I do.

What worried me a little was how many people thought that the novel was my autobiography. It was my first novel, and yes, the emotional journey of one of the main characters was similar to my own, yet the story line was fiction and all the characters were fictional. Some people reacted with disappointment when they found out that none of the Turkish characters were “real”. ‘Not even the shaykh?’ they asked. ‘No,’ I had to say, ‘I have never met a Turkish Sufi shaykh in my life. I have never visited a tekke in Istanbul.’

All through the days of the interviews I was fasting. I think this fact, and the fact that my husband and daughter were around, helped me enormously not to get too excited and too joyful. This felt really important to me. If I failed this test, to stay level-headed when success came my way, I could no longer claim that writing was my prayer, that I was writing because I had to, because it was what I did well, what came from a deep place within me. The student on the spiritual path aims for serenity, for a way of coping with the frequent ups and downs of life. Her ultimate goal is not to be violently tossed about by the storm of life, but quietly sitting in its eye, surrendered to what it brings.

I am back home now, and I am pleased to report that my life has not changed. I am still paralysed as far as the novel I am working on is concerned. Maybe my next blog will deal with writer’s block. My home is still a mess more than three months after a fire (don’t ask, this is another story where sitting in the eye of the storm is demanded of me), yet despite everything I feel nothing but gratitude for what is, and a gentle curiosity about what God is unfolding for me from one moment to the next.

PS: I promised my publishers to put up the links to the Turkish media coverage of the book. If you speak Turkish, have a look. My Turkish is non-existent, but I hope that the articles are honest summaries of the conversations I had with the journalists.

Fatima Martin in Turkey
Links of Coverage of Hakikati Arayan Kadin in Turkish Media:
Interview on Kitap Cafe

Monday, 28 February 2011

The 5 Languages of Love

I started reading The 5 Languages of Love by Gary Chapman for personal reasons. I wanted to understand my husband better. We have been married for twenty-five years but every so often the same issues of disagreement and resentment flare up, leading to exhausting and fruitless discussions. My husband and I are committed to our marriage, so usually call a ceasefire immediately after a battle. Recently we both agreed that it was time to broker a proper peace deal. What took us so long? Mainly the fact that our battles were too infrequent to seriously disturb family harmony, and to a lesser degree that we are in a phase of our lives where the children have grown up and there is more time and energy available to focus on our relationship. Anyway, when we were looking for help in achieving a peace deal the above mentioned book was suggested. I read it almost in one sitting.

Chapman’s theory is that every one of us knows all the five love languages vaguely but most of us are only fluent in one or two of them. However, if you want to convey love and affection to your spouse, or children, or in truth to anybody you have to deal with on a regular basis and you care about, you better learn to speak their language. Chapman promises that learning it and choosing to speak it will transform your relationships, and will also make you feel truly loved.

So what are the five languages of love? Before I start describing them I want to mention here that the author believes that when you fall in love you instinctively speak the other’s love language, because you are completely focussed on the other; everything is exciting and it is easy to give of yourself in every way. Yet this blessed state doesn’t last forever. Studies have shown that two years down the road both partners will have returned to their monolingual state. To have a successful long-term relationship will involve actively choosing to speak more than one language. The languages are mentioned in no particular order, they are all equal as such, but the individual will have a primary love language. If not spoken to in that language she will feel rejected and unloved.

Language No 1: Words of Affirmation
These are words of praise, compliments, pointing out the good in the other, thanking her for support and help. A dialect of this language (yes, the love languages have lots of different dialects) is encouraging words. It is saying, ‘You will play that piece perfectly one day, have you forgotten that you couldn’t play a single tune two years ago?’ to the child who is jumping up from the piano stool declaring ‘I am rubbish at the piano’.
Another dialect is kind words. It reminds me of the advice the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, gave his companions,
‘If a person loves his brother, he should tell him so.’
As somebody who has yet to learn to speak that language fluently, who finds it easier to point out flaws than give out praise, I have chosen as my first challenge to refrain from criticism, hoping that at one point the ensuing silences will fill up with words of affirmation.

Language No 2: Quality time
The most difficult aspect to take on board about this language is that talking to somebody and focusing your attention on her does not necessarily mean quality time. Yes, it is a prerequisite to focus. You are not spending quality time with your children when you sit beside them while they watch a cartoon and you text your brother. Quality time is talking to them, or playing with them, and not doing anything else. But sometimes talking is already too much. Listening to your partner/child could be the real quality time. Most people, when they tell you about a bad day at work or school, don’t want to hear advice, don’t need the problem solved, all they want is to let go of it, to find their own solutions. You can help by watching their body language and say things like, ‘That must have made you feel angry,’ giving the other person a chance to explore her feelings. But don’t say that you wouldn't have put up with that situation; you would have told your boss immediately about that inappropriate remark of your colleague.
A dialect of quality time is quality activity. Sometimes people enjoy the same activity. In this case it is easy to spend quality time together, like walking or cycling. But what if only one of you enjoys visiting galleries? Well, you can choose to visit a gallery once a month with your spouse, in return for him browsing in the second hand bookshop with you for an hour or two. Again, it is the active choice to speak in your partner’s language that is the crucial point here.

Language No 3: Receiving gifts
I am always amazed when my Palestinian friend stays with me in the UK, and I watch her shopping frantically before her departure.
‘Who are you buying all these presents for?’ I ask her.
‘For everyone,’ she says, ‘my brothers, my auntie, my children, my brothers’ children…’ Her list is endless. Giving gifts seems to be one of the culturally imposed love languages in Arab culture.
Personally I hardly speak that language. I was grateful when my children were old enough to buy their own birthday presents. All I had to do was transfer the money. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t giving anything to them. I gave in a different way, as the next language will show you.
According to Chapman, if your partner’s or child’s love language is receiving gifts it is important that you give, no matter how tight finances are. The monetary value of the gift is irrelevant. They want a visible token of your love, maybe it’s a card you made, or a flower you dried for them. Chapman thinks that it is one of the easiest love languages to learn.
I made all my children do the test on Chapman’s website to find out what their primary love language was. It is perhaps not surprising that they speak only the languages fluently that their mother and father speak, and receiving gifts isn’t one of them.
However, I am quite fluent in one of the dialects of this language, what Chapman calls the gift of self or the gift of presence. It means going to the funeral of your friend’s father, it means picking up your sister from hospital after her operation and making sure that she is all right, and it is very close to

Language No 4: Acts of Service
This is the second of the two languages that I am fluent in, a very close second to my primary love language of quality time. It comes naturally to me to cook for my family, to keep the house clean, to sort out everybody’s problems. Most wives and mothers have to learn that language to a certain degree, yet it is not necessarily their language of love. If it isn’t you’ll do the things that are necessary. You’ll feed the children and not worry that it’s take-away pizza or ready-made chicken nuggets for tea. If acts of service is your love language, however, you will cook fresh meals; you’ll want the children to have a taste of you rather than Pizza Hut. It also means that you want to be shown love in that way. My husband, who doesn’t speak this language well, still can’t understand, after all these years of being married to me, why I insist every day that he makes me an espresso after supper; on the weekend I will even ask for more than one a day. It makes me feel loved, I recently told him, after he asked me yet again why he had to make it for me.
Beware though that this language has dialects too, depending on the importance of the act of service. Many husbands think that the fact that they work and spend their money on the family counts as an act of service. Not for most wives. It is not something that you do solely to show your love to your wife, unless before marriage you were an idealistic and broke artist, who finally took on a boring job for the sake of the family. For most wives it’s that cup of tea brought in the morning, the nappy changed, the dishwasher emptied, the washing hung up that counts. For most men whose primary love language is act of service it’s the clean house, the meal cooked that makes them feel loved.
Speakers of that language have to watch out not to make themselves into a doormat. The doormat no longer gives out of love; she will sooner or later resent her giving.

Language No 5: Physical Touch
No, we are not talking sex here. Touch is the most basic sense, the one sense that all of us are able to use, as far as I am aware. People may be blind, deaf, and not able to smell or taste anything, but no matter what, you will have skin that can be touched. Studies have shown that babies who are neglected, who are not touched and hugged and kissed enough, develop emotional problems later on in life.
In times of crises a hug is an instinctive gesture and communicates that we love that person.
Most men will say that their love language is touch because they connect it with sex. You have to ask them the question, ‘If you can have regular sex, whenever you want, how important is it for you to be given a hug, to hold the hand of your spouse, to say good-bye with a kiss?’ If the answer is, ‘not very’, your primary love language is not touch.
My primary love language is not touch but I learned to speak it when I became a mother. It seemed the most instinctive and natural way to express my love for my children when they were babies. I am glad I learned it, because it is my husband’s primary love language. He is not very happy when I travel without him. As a married man with grown-up children he relies on me to speak to him in this language. He will agree to two weeks without me; any more than that and he starts to feel unloved and lonely.
I volunteer for Age Concern and one of the most common laments we hear from our elderly clients is that they are never receiving touch in a loving way. Yes, the staff in the home wash them and dress them, but it is not the same as being touched for affection, out of love.
By now you may either be bored to death or at least asking yourself, ‘What has all this got to do with writing?’ The reason I thought of it as important for the fiction writer is the fact that knowing about these languages we can make our characters different in quite subtle and consistent ways. We can create a scene and ask ourselves, ‘How would somebody, whose primary love language is touch, react to that?’ For example being groped or slapped will feel much more hurtful to her than to somebody who doesn’t relate touch and love quite in the same way. It is another tool to help us portray the world of our characters in a rounded way, not only through their thoughts or senses but the way they express love.
As I am still working on recognising the primary love languages of people and haven’t actually started using the knowledge in my writing I cannot say much more about it. I am, however, excited about giving every character of my novel in progress a primary love language.
Maybe the most fascinating aspect of the idea of love languages is the fact that we can actively learn a language that doesn’t come naturally to us, that we can actively make a decision to do something out of love. It gives the human being a tool to own their love, to make it an active choice based on commitment and loyalty. For me love as this magical force coming over you, falling in love and falling out of it, making the human being a victim of forces outside her control, has always sounded fake, an excuse to act selfishly and ruin the lives of other people in the name of love. Love is giving of yourself, with no expectations of anything in return, not only when it is easy but when you would rather withdraw or walk away.