Reading time: 12 minutes
I didn’t tell anyone properly that I would be speech fasting until a few hours before commencement. I knew if I did, a lot of questioning would ensue from people who sometimes ‘negative-ise’ something they themselves had never considered doing. Newsflash to anyone who has family or friends that are “alternative” – history remembers the “alternative”. And if you’re the outlier of the bunch, good for you. It takes courage to challenge yourself and the status quo. Obvious exceptions to outlier behaviour include Benjamin Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler. Oops there goes my Zionist readership.
As it was, gearing up for 3-days of silence meant that I wasn’t particularly inclined to explain the detail behind how this experiment was conceived. Besides which, I’m not an orator, I’m a writer. In an ideal scenario I would have done this without anyone knowing but I’m not a hermit, I never will be. I’m passionately social and a people’s person, I always will be.
So tangential rants aside, here’s why:
1) “I have never regretted my silence. As for my speech, I have regretted it over and over again.” – Omar Ibn Al Khattab (RA).
Speak or be silent? – most activist campaigns for change are centred around raising your voice and breaking your silence. Where there is oppression, violence and hate, we can never be silent. But there is still a space where silence needs to be observed sometimes in our personal and professional relationships.
You will not regret something you did not say – frequently we say things we regret and in an age that advocates finding your voice, we are forgetting the immense power of silence. How many times have you argued with a sibling, parent, partner or friend and one or both of you overstepped the line and regretted what you said?
Silent treatment as a means of reprimand – how many times have you found “silent treatment” to be a more effective form of demonstrating your dislike for someone or something they have said or done rather than angry exchanges? As a child, I found it incredibly more effective to realise my wrongdoing when a parent gave me the silent treatment rather than when I was shouted at.
You make me regret speaking to you – silence is the best course of action when you have established a pattern of poor listening behaviour in the other person. A recepient of your speech needs to be in active “listening mode” in order to make your speech fruitful, otherwise all you are doing is talking to a brick wall, words fall on deaf ears – take your idiomatic pick. We’ve all been there.
2) Practice the pause – you cannot simply acquire the ability to harness your tongue without practicing it. You cannot access the pause until you mute the sense from which it is invoked.
3) To appreciate my voice – in losing something you value, you learn to appreciate it more.
It is currently Ramadan and I, like many Muslims am fasting from dawn until dusk. Here in England, that’s a 19-hour marathon and by dusk, having just water and a date makes you teary eyed with gratitude. Chuck a slice of watermelon at me at sunset and I kid you not I will bawl my eyes out in joy and appreciation. You have to lose some things to find appreciation for having them.
In April, I read the autobiography of Assata Shakur as part of Hoda Katebi’s international book-club “Because We’ve Read”. Assata was tortured, denied access to fair trials, framed for crimes she never committed and was thrown in solitary confinement for more than a year. Having a voice is a powerful thing and many of us are fortunate to never truly understand what it feels like to lose it through oppression.
In simulating one iota of someone else’s hardship we can only hope to become more empathetic and compassionate human beings.
In losing my voice, I hope to reevaluate the utilisation and purpose of my voice. Perhaps I will recognise the gift of speech that I have access to. Perhaps I will be better able to moderate the purposes for which I raise my voice and identify whether I take this voice for granted, misuse and abuse it for personal desires and ego rather than lending my voice to causes of those who are persecuted and oppressed. If you find that you only raise your voice for causes personal to you, reevaluate yourself – life’s most urgent and persistent question is not what am I doing for myself but what am I doing for others? (That’s paraphrasing a Martin Luther King, Jnr quote).
4) Health reasons – taking a 3-day time out from the endless messaging and the constant slavery to our phones is healthy. Aeroplane mode.
5) Spiritual reasons – in these 3-days God has been my primary companion. I have spoken out loud to seemingly empty roads, I have cracked jokes no one else heard except Him and I have cried tears no one else saw except Him. God is in the Unseen. You have to silence yourself and others to behold the Divine strokes that gently tickle the world around you, the ripples flowing through fields of overgrown grass as the wind blows, the sheep and lambs that sit silently in the shade beneath the trees whilst the sun covers the rest of the field, the trees that lean slightly towards Mecca almost in prostration. There are signs all around for those who reflect [Qur’an 13:3].
6) Entertainment boycott (activism in silence!) – due to the nature of my personality, I am frequently the first to speak or a dominant voice in a group. I am that person in a classroom who when the tutor asks a question and silence ensues, I am the first to break it. I am that person who introduces themselves to the new person in a room first. I am the person in the group exercise part of the PwC assessment day who speaks first when no one else takes initiative. I will always be that person.
But it’s exhausting.
I don’t mean for this to sound conceited and you will understand it better if you are a person like me but it’s exhausting because once you begin this pattern of always being the first to speak and making the host or others feel comfortable, it becomes expected of you. So one day when you arrive in a group that is accustomed to your nature and you are just tired from a long week at work and juggling life, and you decide to be a little quieter than usual, you are then questioned as to whether you are behaving in a contrived manner. What’s wrong? I can assure you nothing is wrong but no one will believe me. It’s my own fault really because I set that expectation.
So this point of the speech fasting exercise is very personal to me. It is my protest against everyone who asks me what’s wrong and doesn’t believe me when I just say I am tired. I am exhausted of being the person who everyone expects to liven up a room. Do it yourself, I am not your Comedy Central channel, I am not your performing monkey. You didn’t pay for this subscription and it is not available on demand. In these 3-days I hope to reclaim my voice for myself. Point 6 is my silent love scream to myself: SHUT UP HALIMA ❤ and therefore point 6 is oddly my favourite reason. It is probably also plenty of peoples favourite reason!! I’m nothing if not self aware. I also realise a copywriter would have a field day with my writing. I care little for perfection or pedants. You can read about my thoughts on that here.
So how did it go? Below are notes I made each day:
Today is fairly amusing for other people. The first person I encounter is my brother. I have a note that says “Hello, I’m speech fasting”. He reads it and chuckles. Yes it’s very amusing. This is swiftly followed by, “actually this is brilliant, I can talk and you can’t talk back! So I’ve got something I need to tell you and this is perfect for me! Please will you stop swearing around my kids!” I mean I ascribe to the philosophy that people who swear a lot tend to be more honest, loyal and upfront with family and friends. Read more here. But okay fine, I’ll moderate my language around children. Duly noted.
The end of day 1 is good. I busy myself with household chores and I find tranquility in reading Qur’an. This is the only time I permit myself to speak out loud in solitude when I recite the Arabic, followed by the English translation. I pause every so often when a verse hits me and I want to express some form of delight towards it. I talk to God. I feel heard.
I decide we need guacamole today but I don’t know how I will go to Asda to buy ingredients without engaging in till-side banter – there is an “Indian Auntie” at a checkout counter who likes me and no joke of a lie, she sang a song to me in Hindi last time I was there. If I come across her, it’s not like I can ignore her.
Then I realise – self checkout counters! What else are they there for except the imbecilically impatient and intolerant for till-side banter customer!!
News flash – self checkout always requires assistance, what was I thinking?! The limes refuse to be weighed so I have to mumble for assistance and hmm hmm hmm my gratitude for being helped out of a pickle (ahem lime).
Before all of this, I notice an elderly couple in front of me. They have a hold up because they need to use a coupon but this needs assistance. The wife is being stroppy with the husband “see I told you we shouldn’t have come in this aisle, now look we are holding everyone up!” I think to myself, she didn’t need to say anything to him. They are both so old. I know so many widows and widowers who would wish they had their companions still with them and this woman is unnecessary berating her husband making him feel bad about holding up a self checkout aisle. I am the only person behind them. I haven’t complained at all. In observing them in silence, it reminds to me that I too look like a nincompoop if I behave like this woman and the reality is, this has definitely happened before. What a waste of speech.
Today is both enlightening and amusing. I have never been a great listener (I hear you all nod as you read) but I’m enjoying this observer role. It feels more enlightening than the role of orator. It reminds me of a quote I read somewhere about how talking only repeats what thoughts you already know and have inside your mind but listening opens the landscape of your mind to expansion.
By the end of the day when my family all assemble for dinner, the silence thing becomes more isolating. My eldest nephew has returned from university with a beard, and my middle nephew points out “Khala look he’s got ginger beard hairs in his chin too!” The opportunities for teasing are coming in thick and fast but the 32-barred prison cell (my teeth) keeps my tongue on lock-down. I have so much to say but I’m not allowed. My family is super amused. My brother in law laughs “she’s going to call us all in a day and recount every moment she wanted to say something but couldn’t and then belatedly insert her speech!” He knows me too well. Sitting at the dinner table, I put my hand in a phone shape and then extend my arm out like a machine gun and fire at them all pretending to fire speech bombs. Of course I will be calling. My sister adds “this is amazing we can say anything and not have to worry about the rapid smart-alec responses, we can keep speaking without any interruptions or opinions.” Ha ha ha, yes dinner was amusing and yes I was dying to speak.
Later in the evening we all watch a BBC 1 programme about Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. I want to message a dear friend who gifted me his book “A Strangeness in my Mind” to let her know about the programme. I feel gagged. I love telling people about things that reminded me about them and a personal connection we shared and not being able to access speech even for goodness makes me feel as though there is an oppression upon my identity. It’s fine, there is BBC iPlayer, I can share this information later.
I miss engaging with family and friends.
Now I feel isolated. I’m starting to really feel sad about not being able to speak and I’m looking forward to sunset when I will break my speech fast. All I want to say is salaam. I miss saying salaam. The Muslim greeting for hello – peace be upon you fellow soul.
I see a programme being advertised about Iraq that starts next weekend, I want to message my Iraqi friend and tell her about it.
I want to check my WhatsApp and see who has messaged.
Even though this is all self imposed, I think about how it must feel for someone who is marginalised in every quarter of life, I think about the homeless person sitting on the street, passed by hundreds of people each day without even a glance or acknowledgement. I think about the 25-mile long strip called Gaza where almost 2m Palestinians “live”.
I think about existence and what it means, I think about how validation is a gift we give to each other when we acknowledge each other. I think about how blessed I am to not have my existence threatened, to have so much of my existence validated by the love and attention from family and friends. I try to list how much I have to be grateful for whilst I sit in contemplation of a self-imposed and self-indulgent silence. I feel like a farce. I wonder if part of this experiment is disrespectful, am I making a mockery out of another person’s daily suffering? I hope not. My intention is two-fold – I want to access the pause and I want to appreciate my voice by losing it.
At about 4pm, with less than 12 hours to go before the end of my speech fast my father calls for me. He needs my help to proof read some submissions. I have to break my silence. When I finally break my silence to discuss amendments with my father, I feel weirdly overwhelmed at hearing my voice.
I feel scared, I feel a renewed sense of fear at the power of my voice and I feel that “pause” activated in the phrase “practice the pause”. Before this exercise I felt that it was only something I could recollect after I’d said something I wished I hadn’t but after this exercise I finally feel as if I could access that tool during a conversation or at least I can right now – because I’m more acutely aware of my voice and the power I have to do good or to do harm with it.
A voice is a very powerful thing. It can cause you and others harm or it can cause you and others good but you will never appreciate it until you’ve lost it and you can never access the pause until you’ve practiced it.
“Speak only when you feel that your words are better than your silence.”