The Watermark by Suma Din

CHILDHOOD PLAY

I remember it well, the sheer joy of playing with water in the sink. I remember the interruption to this blissful state too; my mother’s call, to come out of the bathroom and come downstairs. A jolt in the idyllic play of my five year old self, swishing circles of soapy lather around in patterns and droplets, cutting through the foam with the plug chain to create more shapes. The ripples and reflections, the concentric circles and sublime shifting shapes that could be made and unmade in a moment of scooping up water in a bottle lid – it was endless pleasure. The interruption, though never welcome, was a prelude to the last bit of fun: pulling the plug and chasing the swirls with my eyes as they gurgled their way down into the unknown.  

Water fascinated me as an ever transforming shape; at once transparent, yet still full of the patterns and colours around it - no two episodes of play were ever the same, nor were they long enough. 

ON THE PAGE

Decades later, when I worked on my first book, something happened that took me back to that innate childhood connection to water. The book was primarily a collation of translated ayaat (verses) from the Qur’an alongside sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to motivate women through different stages of life. In addition to this main body, I wrote some poems,  reflections and vignettes from the lives of  famous historical Muslim women, revered, due to their spiritual stature as ‘Mothers of Believers’. Having spent late nights after my children were asleep and toddler nap times during the day, searching data bases for Hadith (sayings and approved actions of Prophet Muhammad) and making inroads in writing the rest of the layers, I felt like something else would help this publication reach the readership I was writing for. Quite what that something was, I couldn’t put my finger on. 

My husband and I were out on a regular weekend afternoon with the children and a couple of my notebooks. We were fortunate to visit Kew’s botanical gardens regularly, and were spoilt by the exotic array of plants and trees from around the world just a few minutes from our home. After a couple of hours of walking around, I opted out of their next game, and sat down with my notebook, thumbing through lists of ‘themes’, titles and stray ideas, searching for something invisible. Maybe it was the closeness to the sky that slipped the idea of a water metaphor running through the book to help get the messages across. Maybe the silent counsel of the trees all around me helped, I don’t know exactly what it was. 

This humble, yet majestic natural resource, an everyday necessity for all, yet a sought after luxury for some: water, this was what I was looking for. Water, in all its incredible life giving forms, would, like an embryonic sac, carry the manuscript: ‘Turning the Tide ~ Reawakening the Woman’s Heart and Soul’ was the result. 

FROM SACRED SOURCES

When I’ve thought about it subsequently, a nature based theme or motif isn’t surprising for a book that is concerned with replenishing the heart and soul. Reading the meaning of the Qur’an in translation and having gained some insight thanks to teachers of Qur’an explanation and interpretation (tafseer in Arabic), brought with it a constant interaction with the subject of natural phenomenon.  Metaphors, similes, analogies and  parables  addressing the reader to think and reflect, and ultimately recognise Allah,  Rabb al-‘alamin –  as The Sustainer of the worlds. 



 

"In the creation of the heavens and earth; in the alternation of night and day; in the ships that sail the seas with goods for people; in the water which God sends down from the sky to give life to the earth when it has been barren, scattering all kinds of creatures over it; in the changing of the winds and clouds that run their appointed courses between the sky and earth: there are signs in all these for those who use their minds."

Surah Al Baqarah 2:164

 

"Who created the heavens and earth? Who sends down water from the sky for you– with which We cause gardens of delight to grow: you have no power to make the trees grow in them– is it another god beside God? No!"

Surah An Naml 27:60

 

From the parting of the sea to life-saving groundwater appearing, to floods; certain Prophets’ accounts in the Qur’an have powerful images linked to water and the lessons these narratives teach us. Beyond historical stories, our human connection to water goes past this world as we know it, with the mention of the salsabil – the fountains in paradise that quench a believer’s thirst. 


Our eyes are constantly being turned through the words to gaze up at the celestial bodies and contemplate their existence, to gaze down at the life of ants, or across at bees, or into the distance at the fields and forests, the orchards and olive groves, the gardens, the barren land, the rocks, the seas, the oceans. It’s no surprise that coastal areas appeal to people and if that’s out of reach, as it is for most urban dwellers, then we head for local lakes, river walks to be close to this fluid miracle. 

And in our daily lives the ritual washing, Wudu one performs before offering their five daily Salah (the compulsory five prayers starting before dawn until late evening), is another significant connection to water. I’ve felt the benefit of this connection countless times, when, in preparation to stand in front of Our Sustainer, the physical contact with water is gentle and calming. There’s much to be said for mindful Wudu and refreshing our emotions as well as our limbs! 

As Turning the Tide loosely follows the stages of a woman’s life from the inception of her soul and childhood, to the end of her life on earth, the water metaphor flowed through each stage easily. I used a different type of water to symbolise each stage of life, and therefore wrote introductions to each exploring the stage of life and the type of water. For example, the chapter on Youth is called ‘Streams’.

ADDING PIGMENT

Roughly three years ago, purely by instinct, I started playing with watercolours, some kind of urge to add colour to water and experiment awoke within me, which coincided with the time the publishers and I planned changes for the fourth edition of Turning the Tide. An idea brewed in the back of my mind about adding watercolour art to replace the photograph images. Thinking about abstract art set me off on experimenting with that first small set and a couple of shades  from the Cotman’s range I bought at the same time. And it was no surprise that Ultramarine, Cobalt blue, Turquoise and  Prussian blue drew my paintbrush with a magnetic force I didn’t resist. 

Painting from instinct created abstract mosaics of sea inspired patterns and shapes within swirling waves of one shape or another. Something about the time taken for rocks and pebbles to form, shaped by the sea’s droplets and rain, hold meaning as well as their unique patterns.

The sea ebbs and flows, like our faith (imaan); sometimes brimming over and quenching those around us, other times sinking, a vanishing trickle renders our heart and soul fragile and brittle. I found the process of watercolour painting calming for an overactive mind; playing with the pigment and types of water, creating blooms, specks, or just letting the paint flow and sprawl into stronger or weaker shades. 

Painting abstracts was like a new language. Nothing is what it seemed. There are rare moments where what we expect and what really is aligns.Mostly we're working out new shapes and patterns of life; looking for one thing, finding another. Discovering a treasure in something discarded. Making sense out of the pieces into something we call life. Painting abstract patterns offers something liberating; a way to see things and represent them another way. 

After the fascination with the range of blue shades running all over the cotton paper was satiated, I was drawn to patterns in nature as inspiration: leaves, stems, petals, buds, flowers, and underwater flora. 

The experience of trying out watercolour paints was instantly fulfilling, especially as I had no plan, no particular goal or standard in mind. Painting in the evenings, sometimes experimenting, other times following a tutorial on YouTube, soon became something I relished. When time didn’t allow for this, then even a short stint with watercolour pencils, a jar of water and one paintbrush brought immense satisfaction. 

After a fair amount of experimenting with different ideas, and going through options with the designer, we finally agreed on abstract paintings to accompany each chapter, some of which I painted. 

WRITING, PAINTING & FAITH

The more I painted as a hobby, the less stuck I felt with writing when the inevitable writer’s block would gate crash  on to my desk. I resisted reading up (and still do) on any theories about the connection. Instead I experienced how the more I used watercolours without any agenda or pressure to produce something, the more it seemed to help with writing. Instead of leaving the desk when I was stuck, to do something mundane and mechanical (the default many will recognise – drawer sorting or decluttering, again), I reached for the brushes. Their tapping sound against the glass jar of misty water, trying out strokes on the cotton cold press paper with the spontaneous choice from the palette, usually worked wonders to return back to work and inch forward.

There are surely parallels between writing & painting, they share the same space: a blank canvas to create without the confines people impose; freedom of expression. A form of hope. All my published work has the subject of faith somewhere within it, like a watermark. Belief in Allah, as The Creator and Sustainer, an innate connection to the natural surroundings, painting and writing, feel connected and merge quietly and seamlessly. 

The journey from those carefree days of playing with water to contemplating it as a sign of The Creator’s magnificence is not as far apart as one may think. Natural phenomenon, faith and artistic expression support one another if we let them. Language itself has endless possibilities to bring good and truth to humanity, and one of my favourite ayaat in the Qur’an expresses this so accurately:

 

"Say [Prophet], ‘If the whole ocean were ink for writing the words of my Lord, it would run dry before those words were exhausted’– even if We were to add another ocean to it."

Surah Al Kahf 18:109

 

Suma Din is an author and freelance researcher based in Buckinghamshire, England. Her titles focus on social justice, education, faith and women. She taught in the supplementary and adult education sector for many years and wrote non-fiction resources for children. One of her writing passions is to bring marginalised voices to the fore, as she did through her book on Muslim mothers and their children's schooling. Suma is married with three children and lives with her pet fascination for bodies of water and recreational painting.

Further details of publications are at: www.therootedwriter.co.uk. You can also follow her on Instagram @rooted_writer