Letter to Ramadan #7 (2018)

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IMG_0326.jpgDear Ramadan,

Watching you depart hurts me a little. That’s because there are a lot of things I wish I had done or had done better. However, this is not a letter of complaint. It’s a letter of appreciation. Ramadan, I’ll miss you.

I’ll miss finding it difficult to concentrate without coffee, or staying warm without some hot drinks. I’ll miss witnessing the way my soul (nafs) easily deviates  without God’s assistance and reminders. I’ll miss realising how I need God’s mercy and forgiveness more than anything.

I’ll miss feeling uncomfortable about big feasts, and waste food and drinks at iftars. I’ll miss being conscious of my consumption and the need to live more frugally and sustainably because wastefulness reduces the values of God’s blessings.

I’ll miss catching up with friends, breaking fast and praying together. For a while I felt isolated and forsaken due to several reasons, and I kept asking God to give me a remedy for my heart. Alhamdulilah I think the supplication was accepted because this year the sense of isolation has vanished. I’ve learned to restrict my use of social media and focused on the people that truly matter in my life.

I’ll miss trying to recite the Qur’an, albeit very slow, instead of just listening to the audio like previous years. I will miss crying at some verses, feeling intimidated by some , and then finding so much joy in others. I’ll miss the sweetness of remembering that this is the month that the Qu’ran was revealed, which is perhaps why Allah commands us to fast: He wants us to detach ourselves from trivialities and celebrate the Qur’an in our best and most elevated state.

I’ll miss listening to SoulFood Podcast, which provides an in-depth guide on how to get nearer to God. I’ll miss feeling motivated to make some changes.

I’ll miss those moments trying to decide whether I should go to the mosque for tarawih or stay at home, whether I should stay or leave after 8 rakats, whether I should control my tongue or snap at someone, whether I should wake up for suhoor or sleep in, whether I should overeat or moderate my eating at iftar, whether I should recite the Qur’an or watch a film, whether I should continue with my translation or relinquish, whether I place trust in God or rely on my ego, whether I let certain things go or hold on them as if they were mine forever. All of these struggles remind me that my nafs  (lower self) is always active and eloquent, that it has defeated and will defeat me several times, and thus training the nafs (lower self) would be a lifelong project.

That’s why I’ll miss you Ramadan. That’s why I’ll need you.

May Allah allow us to meet each other again.

But for now, thank you. Alhamdulilah

Sincerely,

Maira.

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Letter to ramadan #6 (2018)

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Dear Ramadan,

One of the things we do when fasting is waiting. Waiting for the iftar (breaking-fast meal). Waiting for that moment we finish the 11 hours of hunger, thirst and fatigue. Waiting for that moment our stomach receives what it’s been asking for. In other words, fasting is a form of patience and steadfastness.

To be honest, I’m not good at being patient. In fact, there’s something I really want to to happen, and several times I have lost patience and even felt hopeless. Yet, your presence reminds me that belief in God is not just about being grateful. It is also about showing forbearance, putting trust in God and keeping hope in the midst of adversities.

Being patient means making supplication (du’a) and taking necessary action but understanding that the result is up to God . It means remembering that God listens and answers all of the prayers, but how He responds depends not on what I fancy but on His wisdom and knowledge of all things. God might give me what I ask for immediately, or He might withhold the gift for later, or He might decide not to give me the gift, or He might grant me something much better than what I ask for. Like a doctor who knows if a medicine is salubrious to a patient and the best time to give it, God knows exactly what is beneficial for me as well as how and when it should be provided. Just as He prescribes fasting to train my lower self (nafs), He afflicts hardships or forces me to wait for something so that I can showcase my sincerity and fulfil my duties. After all, when you love something/someone, that love is not truly sincere when you turn away from the beloved at the face of some hardships and calamities.

Thus, instead of lamenting, I guess I should feel grateful that God still gives me the opportunity to wait and grow. That’s why sometimes all I want to pray is to ask God to give me resilience and patience. It’s easy for the mind to understand the nature of God’s trials, but the emotions can sometimes overrides the reasoning.

As for worship and servitude to God, it should be purely and sincerely for God’s sake. Man should only proclaim his impotence and seek refuge with Him through supplication, he should not interfere in His dominicality. He should leave the taking of measures to Him and rely on His wisdom. He should not accuse His Mercy. (Said Nursi, The Twenty-Third Word in The Words, p. 325

“No kind of calamity can occur except by the leave of God: and if anyone believes in God, God guides his heart (aright): for God knows all things” (The Qur’an 64:11)

letter to ramadan #5 (2018)

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Dear Ramadan,

Your presence reminds me of many important things.

  1. You remind me of the true Owner of the Universe. In the remaining 11 months of the year, for me food and drinks are things I can buy from Coles and Woolworth or consume at restaurants and food courts. Yet, your presence lifts the veil of causes, allowing me to see them clearly as the property of God, whilst I am only a guest/visitor in His palace full of bounties. I am reminded that everything, from the tiniest particle to the sun, belongs to God,  and only He has the right to determine what is permissible and what is not. For example, only He can turn something like foods and drinks, which are beneficial and permissible most of the times in the year, into prohibited items in a specific period (between sunrise and sunset) for a month. Fasting also reminds me that as a guest, my duty is to await and follow the commands of the Owner. Even if the food and the drinks are right within my reach, I cannot take a bite without the permission. Thus, Ramadan, your presence breaks the illusion of my ego, which imagines itself to be a king and acts as it pleases, and help me to become more conscious of God in everything I do and see.
  2. You remind me of how privileged I am as I realise for the remaining 11 months of the year, hardly any of my supplication (du’a) is about food and drink. The reason is that I live in a place where food and drink are easily accessible, where I don’t usually experience hunger and thirst, and where I become wasteful and greedy. Yet, your arrival is like a slap at my face, showing me how ungrateful I have been to the great blessings in my life, how I have reduced their values through wastefulness and over-consumption, and how I’ve not appreciated the names of God as the “Sustainer of all the Worlds”.
  3. You remind me to think of people who suffer from poverty and evoke my compassion and desire to help.
  4. You remind me how indigent and impotent I actually am. Without coffee, it becomes much harder to concentrate; without some snacks it becomes easy to be tired, and without God’s sustenance and permission, I can’t even lift a finger, let alone changing the world. Thus, Ramadan, you break the illusion of my ego by showing clearly that I don’t own myself nor do I have much power. As Said Nursi beautifully puts it,

The instinctual soul wants to be free and independent, and considers itself to be thus. According to the dictates of its nature, it even desires an imaginary dominicality and to act as it pleases. It does not want to admit that it is being sustained and trained through innumerable bounties. Especially if it possesses worldly wealth and power, and if heedlessness also encourages it, it will devour God’s bounties like a usurping, thieving animal.

Thus, in the month of Ramadan, the instinctual soul of everyone, from the richest to the poorest, may understand that it does not own itself but is totally owned; that it is not free, but is a slave. It understands that if it receives no command, it may not do the simplest and easiest thing; it cannot even stretch out its hand for water. Its imaginary dominicality is therefore shattered; it performs its worship and begins to offer thanks, its true duty. (Said Nursi, “The 29th Letter”, The Letters, p. 459)

Letter to ramadan #4 (2018)

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Dear Ramadan,

For quite a while, I felt isolated from everything. I also experienced some sort of  abandonment, which I found incredibly difficult to digest, forgive and move on. As a result, I regularly prayed and asked God to open my heart and allow me to feel belonging to something again. Alhamdulilah I think Allah has granted me what I’ve been asking, as I can finally say that the sense of isolation has vanished.

There are new people in my life; there are also old friends I reconnect after a long time, all of whom make me realise how blessed I am to be able to love, care and trust someone. More importantly, I have also been able to attend weekly discussions, where I share thoughts and glorify Allah with other sisters. It reminds me of how amazing it is to be a part of a community, to praise and worship God together. It makes me see clearly that Islam is not a religion of individualism, but of mutual assistance, sisterhood and brotherhood.

In “The Duties of Brotherhood in Islam”, Al Ghazali advises the Muslims:

you should use your tongue to express affection to your brother, and to enquire about his circumstances. Praising him for the good qualities you know him to possess, in the presence of one before whom he would choose to be praised”. (p. 37)

Thus, in this letter, I want to do just that.

  1. To Maryam, the friend who is always there for me in both difficult and happy times. You have always amazed me with your compassion, generosity and and gentleness. Even when you are incredibly busy with your baby, you always make sure I’m okay. You’re the one I can tell everything without fear of judgement, the one that always reminds me of my duties as a Muslim, and the one that I seek assistance and support. I thank Allah for giving me a sister like you, and I pray to Him that we will be sisters forever.
  2. To Maryam, the sister that I met last year. Although we have only known each other for around one year, I feel like I have known your for a very long time. Your perceptiveness, patience and your commitment to your faith has inspired me. Thank you for putting up with me and for always being there with love and support.
  3. To Nilufer, my high school friend whose presence always lifts up the atmosphere. Your intelligence, eloquence and creativity makes you the person I seek advice for creative projects. Thank you for always listening to my crazy ideas, reading my scripts, giving honest feedback and helping me whenever you can. May Allah give you a lot of blessings.
  4. To Sumaiya, the intelligent, strong and kind-hearted girl. Although you are younger than me, you are much more mature, considerate and open-minded, and I know I have to learn a lot from you. I feel incredibly grateful that you keep in touch with me and remember me when there is something interesting going on. Sumaiya, may Allah protect your purity and grant you whatever you need and is good for you.

Alhamdudilah!

Letter to Ramadan #3 (2018)

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Dear Ramadan,

As I live close to a cemetery, I’m often reminded of the grave and the fact that sooner or later I’ll get there. It can be the next day, the next hour, the next minute or the next second. This makes me appreciate every breath I take, every heart beat I can hear, every thoughts and feelings conjured in mind and heart. It also reminds me of how brief my life is and how I need to stop wasting time. Indeed, as Said Nursi emphasises,

If you want advice, death is sufficient. Yes, the person who thinks of death is saved from love of this world, and works in earnest for the hereafter (Said Nursi, The Twenty Third Letter, The Letters, p. 328)

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Every soul shall taste death (The Qur’an 21:35)

This year I also had the opportunity to see the gorgeous cherry blossoms in Japan, fulfilling a dream I had had since I was a teenager (alhamdulilah). As I was admiring the elegance of the petals floating in the wind, I realise I was witnessing their ‘death’. This reminded me that death shouldn’t just evoke fear and sorrow, because for a person with belief, death is not desolation and darkness. Death is, as Said Nursi puts it beautifully,

a door which opens from the prison of this world onto the fields of immortality, from the arena of examination onto the gardens of Paradise and from the hardships of life onto the Mercy of the All Merciful one (The Words, p. 50).

In other words, facing death means that you are discharged from duties and the test of life, and that it was time to receive the fruits of your labour and return to your permanent home. Remembering this assisted me to process the recent deaths of my grandparents. Instead of sobbing, I realised I should say “Alhamdulilah, their tests are over. May Allah show them mercy”.

Indeed, Angle of Death is like this misunderstood character that people abhor due to his unpleasant look even though he is the bringer of the sweetest news and advices. When I meet him, although I believe I would be too horrified to utter any word, I still hope to say: ‘Thank you, you’re indeed a loyal and beautiful servant of God”

Sincerely,

Maira.

Letters to Ramadan #2 (2018)

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Dear Ramadan,
You’re coming very soon, and words can’t describe how delighted I am to greet you. May God assist all of us to complete our duties and flourish. May He accept our efforts and prayers. And may He forgive us and grant us mercy. Also, here’s the reminder to my own soul: don’t compare yourself to others; just try your best in what you do; everyone has their pace

Letter to ramadan #1 (2018)

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Dear Ramadan,

You’re arriving in 2 weeks. I can’t wait to see you. As usual, you give me mixed feelings. You force me to face the ugliness within myself (laziness, distraction, pettiness, to name a few) and make me feel ashamed. Yet, at the same time you remind me that you are here to assist me to rise and therefore I am hopeful. May God allow me to see you again this year.

the feeling of losing someone

The end

Photographer: Maira Nguyen.

 

Today my grandma passed away.

At 9:30 am. At her home in her hometown.

I was working thousands of miles away in a different country.  I received the message from mum during break. I felt numb.

It was the first time in my life I experienced the death of a close family member. Yes, for the last 24 years, I have been the blessed girl who knows both of her grandparents and understand what it means to be granddaughter.

But today one of them has finished their life test and departed for the next world.

I find it surreal.

I wonder what I can pray for her. She’s not a Muslim.

Did she find God at the last moments of her life? What state of belief was she at?

Nobody knows except God.

I know I can’t pray God to forgive her if she is a disbeliever. I know I can’t pray for her to gain Paradise if she never believes and desires it.

So I just pray that God will show her plenty of mercy and compassion in His judgement of her. That God will remember her as the grandma of two believers who appreciate everything she has done for us.

I love you grandma. I miss you, too.

But at least your trial is over. And for that, I say alhamdulilah.

 

 

 

24

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By Maira Nguyen

This time last year I graduated from university. Although I was hopeful and uplifted, a part of me was nervous and anxious. After all, it was my first time leaving an education institution, my first time no longer having a structured syllabus, and my first time not knowing where I would end up by the end of next year. At 24, I entered the real world, desperate for a job.

Even though I graduated with a degree in teaching, the first six months of 2017 saw me striving to find a place in the media industry. That was because being a film producer had been my dream since I was 15, and I could never imagine being anything else until two years ago when I began my teaching course. While I loved the teaching profession, I wanted to see if I could land a job as a content producer. Thus, I applied for many media jobs while volunteering as a content producer for two not-for-profit media organisations. As much as I tried, I didn’t manage to secure a job in this industry. The best I could do was to get to the final rounds of the recruitment process (top 2), only then to get rejected because I didn’t have a driving license. It was excruciating, and I remembered weeping almost every night, feeling like my efforts up to now had gone into waste. My self-esteem was damaged, my sense of isolation was deepened, and my patience was running out.

It was Ramadan when God granted me a full-time job: a teaching position at a Muslim school (alhamdulilah). As I didn’t expect I would get the job – I found my performance at the interview horrendous – I was astonished when the vice principal called to inform me that I got the job. I was on cloud nine. Not only because 7 months of unemployment had finally come to an end, but also because my workplace was close to my house and was accessible by public transport.  Besides, it’s a Muslim school, which enables me to support the Muslim community as I have often wished. Its staff members are also multi-cultural and multi-faith, which means I would never feel excluded because of my Vietnamese background or feel like I were living in a Muslim bubble with everyone having the same mindset. Thus, I accepted the job without much hesitation.

The remaining five months of 2017 saw me adjusting to the first teaching job in my life. Even though I was not trained in language teaching at university, I was assigned to support students whose English is an additional language. It was an interesting task because I supported the mainstream teacher rather than have my own class.  Sometimes I could withdraw students and deliver my own lessons, but most of the times I provided assistance in the classroom. Although my knowledge of English syntax and grammar was solid, making it easy for me to explain to students how to write a sentence or a paragraph, the first term was still overwhelming and exhausting. I often stayed up late to prepare resources, revise pronunciation of words, plan activities and learn new teaching strategies from books and journals. It took me a while, but with the support of Ms Jane – my mentor, I was eventually able to catch up.My students were also lovely, sweet and appeared to enjoy my lessons, which is evident when they often asked me when they could come to the withdrawal class. By the second term, I got used to teaching and felt more confident alhamdulilah. The only thing that upset me was that I had a strong accent, but I will try to improve it.

I never thought one day I would teach ESL. However, I now seriously consider this as a long-term career option. Firstly, I find it amazing to assist someone to learn a new language and make changes in their life. That’s why I have decided to return to university and do a TESOL course in 2018. In Islam, it’s vital that we perform our best in the tasks given, and I think my current task is to ensure I teach to the best of my abilities. Inshallah I will be benefited from the course and will deliver higher quality teaching.

In retrospect, not getting a job in the media industry is not too awful. After several years of volunteering for various media organisations, I came to realise that what I truly loved was storytelling, and I didn’t have to work for a media company to do that. It also hit me that working under tight pressures, stressing about analytics, writing copies and making formulaic videos that have little meaning to me is not exactly what I wanted. I also accepted that my personality was perhaps not suitable for working full time at a media institution. One might say I was justifying my decision to relinquish, but I don’t think that’s the case. I learned to be more flexible by reminding myself that I am not solely defined by my career, and I can use the skills I have gained to continue to glorify God and to support the Muslim community. I learned to appreciate what is given to me instead of complaining about what I don’t have. Instead of serving my own ambition, I will strive to use what God has granted me to serve Him inshallah.

Indeed, being 24 was exhausting . Many tears shed, many moments of hopelessness and depression, and many moments of self-doubt and self-hate. 2017 saw me combating my ego (nafs), which is pessimistic, heedless and lacks discipline. Though I have been defeated several times, these weak moments have also made me realise how I need Islam, how I need God, how being further away from God can bring out the worst qualities in me.

At the same time, this year has reaffirmed my faith in God’s mercy and compassion. Several times I sob because I feel moved by the bounties Allah has showering upon me. For me, the teaching job that Allah has granted me is an affirmation that I was and have never been left alone, my cries have never been unheard, and my supplication has never been ignored.

More importantly, 2017 has taught me again that what I desire might not necessarily be beneficial for me, and what is given to me by Allah, whether it is a calamity or a bounty, is always the best for me. Through them, I learn and discover something about myself – my weaknesses and my strengths. Indeed, Allah knows me better than I do; indeed, He has given me what is the best and most suitable for me at this point; indeed, His Mercy is boundless and absolute.

All praise be to God, the Merciful, the Compassionate