Solitude, Service and a Return to Nature

Wrote this piece for Muslim Women Connect

Saira Niazi

As I sat there on the train, watching the world go by, I wondered whether I had made the right decision. I was on my way to a small seaside town in Norfolk where I would be living and volunteering at a youth hostel for a few weeks. I hadn’t really given it much thought before arranging it with the hostel manager. I’d just quit my job and I needed some time away to think and I figured that volunteering at a hostel by the coast would be a good a means as any to get away. I’d have enough time to think, but not so much time that I’d drive myself crazy with my thoughts.

The few people I spoke to in London about it, didn’t really understand. They suggested that I go on holiday instead. When I told them that I wasn’t taking my phone or my laptop they were even more confused. I tried to explain that I simply needed some time out, but I don’t think I did a very good job – somethings are quite difficult to communicate- the need to be alone being one of them.

I wanted to disconnect, to reflect and to spend time with my Creator. Again, this isn’t something that’s easy to explain especially to another Muslim. Surely you can spend time with Allah wherever you are, you don’t have to travel to rural England and walk a hundred miles. It’s true, you don’t, but for me it’s always helped.

Since my late teens, I developed a habit of travelling to remote parts of the country. I’d stay a few nights at a youth hostel and spend the days embarking on long solo walks. My wanderings would always bring me a sense of peace, a sense of internal quietude and joy that can only be felt alone in the wild. Nature beckoned, I answered.

My first full day in Norfolk was difficult. I woke up at 6am, prayed fajr, dressed quickly in my catering uniform and went downstairs to start my shift. I served breakfast to over 50 teenagers that morning. I felt like a dinner lady, which wasn’t so bad. After I mopped the kitchen floors,  I had breakfast with the other staff members and changed into the housekeeping uniform. That morning I must’ve cleaned over 20 toilets and showers. It was a pretty grim, but very humbling experience.  Aside from helping maintain my friends Airbnb in South Korea for a few months, I hadn’t done any housekeeping in my life, not on the scale I was expected to do at the hostel. It was hard work and it wasn’t very pleasant.

Once I had gotten through my first shift, I went to room and began to plot how I could get out of this awful predicament I had gotten myself into. I wasn’t sure I could hack two weeks of this. I needed to go for a walk so I  headed to the hills. I spent the next few hours wandering by the coast. The North Sea stretched as far as the eye could see, the sound of the waves were so calming and a few hours into my walk, I’d forgotten all about the unpleasantness of the morning and all my anxieties dissipated. I felt present and connected to the natural world. I remembered Allah. I settled on a deserted beach. I resolved to myself I would stick it out, I’d made a commitment and I would see it through. I would do it for the sake of Allah, as a means of getting close to Him. After all, this was one of the reasons I came.

The next week, I got into a routine. I would work at the hostel from 6am to 12pm, and then I would embark on very long walks, sometimes I’d get the bus to other places. I traversed pine forests and beaches, I’d watch the sunset. It was liberating to be anonymous and alone, to be present in absence. I relished in the fact that I didn’t have social media, that I didn’t have to take photos or post updates on where I was, or what I was doing. That I could be free for a short while. I could live. Some days I’d walk for hours and not come across another human being.

There were times I felt lonely- but the freedom and peace over rid those feelings. With each day that passed, I found it easier to be without. In fact, I was surprised at how easy it was- to disconnect. There were so many benefits to living this way. I found that I was sleeping better. I felt better than I had in a long time. I felt clearer and healthier- physically, spiritually and mentally.

A few weeks on from when I arrived, I found myself back at Liverpool street station, my hiking boots caked in mud, suitcase with scriptures at my side. It was evening rush hour – it was a shock to the system. Pushing through hordes of suits at the station and on the sidewalks, I felt a sense of an unease and dread. Already the clarity and peace I had attained with difficulty felt like it was eroding. Back to London, back to un-reality. I sighed.

There are many things I learnt and relearnt whilst away- I learnt the value of time, the need to be quiet, to be alone. I learnt lessons in humility, in gratitude and grace. For a short time, I gained Taqwa. God consciousness. It felt glorious.

I hope to take heed of the lessons I learnt, and to live better in London- to find ways to retain a sense of peace and connection- whether by embarking a sunrise wandering after fajr in the local park or switching my phone off after working hours. Often, we have a lot more control over the way we live than we think we do. Not only can we survive, but we can thrive by disengaging with the modern world- if not always, then at least sometimes.

Divinc Interview: Wandering Through Hidden Spaces in London with Saira Niazi

DivInc — Tell us a little about how your childhood days, family and dreams of what you wanted to become while growing up.

Saira — I come from quite a big family, I have 4 brothers and 2 sisters. I had a great childhood- my parents often struggled to make ends meet growing up- but we were close knit family and they rarely let us feel as though we were lacking.

I didn’t like secondary school. I had no friends and I’d often bunk off and go exploring. I thought I wanted to be a Geologist because I loved the earth and I loved being outdoors. I went to college on the other side of town to study Geology in A-level but ended up failing and consequently dropping the subject. My tutors told me I would never be able to get into university with only 2 A-levels. I did — and I got into the university I really wanted to go to, (Goldsmiths) where I studied International Relations. I’d always been quite interested in current affairs and history. Growing up in the post 9/11 world as a British Pakistani, I thought it was really important that I learn about the world.

What made you start Living London?

I’ve always really loved exploring. I love learning through my explorations, through the places I go and the people I meet. Living London started out as book project that I started while I was working a 9–5 job that I didn’t enjoy. It became an escape. Through writing and photography, I’d record my journeys to various hidden gems and spaces around the city. Soon enough a few years passed, and I’d gotten to a stage where I’d collected over a thousand places. I decided to start a blog and then had the idea of leading walking tours. I thought it would be nice to be able to share and connect hidden gems in an area and bring them to life through storytelling and anecdotes of people and place. I started out just doing them for fun but soon realised that there was quite a demand for what I was offering, and that I could possibly make a living from Living London.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own company?

Meeting and working with so many incredible people has definitely been one of the most rewarding aspects of starting my own company. Also, just being able to do what I love, to share my knowledge and stories with others, to give others similar opportunities and get paid for it! This has been enormously rewarding. I really believe in what I do. I think by connecting people to different places, projects and communities, our perceptions of what it means to live in a city as diverse, open and inspirational as London, can be transformed. There are endless possibilities for collaboration and collective growth.

Tell us about three spots in London you would recommend for exploration.

1- The London Wetland Centre in Barnes. It’s a magical wetland nature reserve home to all kinds of birds. It’s a really peaceful spot. You won’t feel like you’re in London.

2- Aziziye Mosque in Dalston. It’s one of the prettiest mosques I’ve ever been too. It used to be a cinema before it was converted. In the basement, there’s a hidden restaurant that serves the best Turkish food in London.

3- Golders Green crematorium, a beautiful and moving place to remembrance. It houses memorials of many famous people who’ve passed including Sigmund Freud and T.S Eliot. There are sprawling gardens surrounding, that are magical all year round.

What is the best advice you ever took?

Be your most authentic self, always.

What challenges did you face while starting your own work and how did you overcome them?

I faced a lot of challenges. Sometimes I’d spend days prepping for a tour and arranging visits to secret places and on the day only one or two people would show up and it was really disheartening. But I’d keep going. I started to think outside the box and collaborated with people I thought were doing really exciting things. This was inspiring to me. I also started to have my events regularly listed in The Londonist.

What would be your advice to young people who have just started working on their dream?

Don’t give up and don’t listen to the naysayers. Do what you love, do what you believe in and if you’re persistent enough and if you work hard, you’ll succeed. People have always told me what I can’t do. From my school days up until now and insofar, I’ve proved them wrong. Don’t allow people’s opinion of you and your abilities to affect your own opinions. As cliché as it sounds, you really can do anything you put your mind to. You can achieve great things. Also, I’d say constantly innovate and experiment. If something doesn’t work, don’t be afraid of change.

Autumn Newsletter

Autumn has finally arrived - the most beautiful time of year in London (in my opinion!) The leaves on trees are turning golden brown, the light is shifting, days are getting shorter and there's a certain magic in the air.

Autumn has always been a time for change, and for renewal and I'm excited to announce a new programme of events, wanderings and workshops to enable you to make the most of this wondrous season.

I've got lots of exciting things planned over the next few months, including a nighttime wandering around South Kensington's sacred gems, the launch of my new 'Create your own Wandering' workshops, and inspiring Citizens of London talks. Read on below to find out more!

Click here to read the latest newsletter

Hiring!

Living London is seeking a Project Intern to help develop partnerships and assist in the planning and delivery of projects, events, workshops and wanderings across London. 

The role is for up to 2 days a week for 3 months (starting October), with opportunities for additional paid work within the organisation.

Job role

  • liaise with existing partners, and identify ways in which these can be developed

  • identify and develop new partnerships with community groups, start-ups, hostels and hotels, colleges and Universities.

  • foster community relations through events such as open days and through involvement in community initiatives

  • document Living London events and walks, through photography, writing and/ or film

  • updating the Living London mailing list

  • develop a social media strategy and set goals to increase brand awareness, sales and increase engagement

  • manage and facilitate social media communities by responding to social media posts and developing discussion

Person Specification:

  • A passion for exploring London and connecting with communities

  • Trustworthy, personable, committed and reliable

  • Lateral thinker and ability to solve problems

  • Good communication skills

  • Positive attitude. Must have a sense of humour!

Desired:

  • Experience working with diverse communities

  • Have reasonable knowledge of the geography of London

  • A flair for creativity, an eye for visuals

  • South London based

Benefits:

  • Free and exclusive access to numerous hidden gems and attractions

  • Exciting, varied and hands-on programme of work

  • Opportunity to develop skills in the areas of research, delivery, partnerships, community engagement and marketing

  • Meet lots of interesting Londoners and form meaningful connections

  • Flexible working hours

  • Travel and lunch paid

To apply send a copy of your CV along with a few lines about why you would be well suited for the role to Saira at livinglon@gmail.com. Deadline 26th September, 12pm.

 

Living London Blog

Over the years I’ve stumbled upon a myriad of awe inspiring places across London- within these places I’ve often met extraordinary people with stories both unique and inspiring. I set up the Living London blog (which initially started out as a book I began writing in 2013) to share the everyday explorations, experiences, encounters and imaginings that make up my London, the city I love and I live.

The original Living London blog is made up of a collection of over a thousand London places, photographs, stories, descriptions and poems- and it's growing still. Often I'll add newly discovered places and stories (London is inexhaustible). The blog is designed to inform and to inspire. The best way to use it is to click EXPLORE—& to see where you end up! 

NOTE: London is a rapidly changing city and as such many of the places I’ve written about may no longer exist/ or be accessible to the public. Please make sure you check before setting out! Also, I’ve had to re-visit lots of the places I’ve written about to take photos (visuals are so important & tell half the story) so the descriptions may not fully match the images. This is a work in progress! Finally it took me a lot of time, energy and effort to create this resource, so please use it, spread it and share your own London explorations by using the #LivingLondon hashtag and tagging @livinglon on your wanderings! 

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