Arriving in a small Turkish town on a cold January night, my sister-in-law and I nervously waited outside the ladies’ guest house as we watched our husbands disappear into the night. Uncertain that there would be an answer to our knocks at this late hour; we anxiously anticipated what would eventually await us on the other side.
We would be spending the next ten days in Lefke, an inconspicuous town huddled below the Troodos Mountains and overlooking the majestic Mediterranean Sea in the North West of Cyprus. Notable for nothing more than the luscious oranges that grow here, it is actually this retreat which constantly draws in thousands of travellers from around the world.
I had travelled here with the intention of learning more about myself, drawing closer to the Creator and revitalising my faith. It would also be a personal challenge to live with complete strangers for ten days.
Cocooned in layers of woollen blankets, I lay awake wondering how I would rise for fajr without the aid of the alarm on my mobile phone. So used to Western living, I was surprised when the sweet sound of the adhan awoke me the next morning. It truly was a heavenly call and better than the monotonous beeping of an alarm clock.
Witnessing the banquet of a breakfast on the first morning, I realised that I’d be carrying a few extra pounds of luggage home and not in my suitcase either. I didn’t mind. We weren’t just being fed food but love. It wasn’t just our bodies that were being nourished but our souls and I wanted to soak up as many blessings as I could.
The wholesome meals were prepared devotedly by Aunty Samiya, custodian of the guest house, early every day. Mealtimes always began (and ended) with Aunty Samiya or an elderly guest reciting a prayer as the women congregated in a circle, perched on chairs, settees, steps, or anything we could find as we would wait expectantly for the first delicious dish. We would sit shoulder to shoulder passing our plates down for reinforcements.
I always wondered at the patience and generosity of the women who served in the guest house. Day after day they cooked, cleaned and fed an endless number of visitors. Back home after a weekend of entertaining, I could be found lying on the sofa exhausted crying, ‘no more guests for another six months!’ I wanted to be more like them – more generous, more hospitable.
The ladies’ guest house (there is a separate guest house for men) provides free accommodation and meals but all visitors are expected to help with everyday chores. I pitched in but, slightly averse to chores, I did feel like I should be doing more especially when my new friend advised me that ‘for every pot you scrub in the guest house, something is scrubbed off your heart.’
We would go for daily walks after dhuhr prayers, our senses shocked by the abundance of orange, lime, lemon and olive trees in bloom in this Cypriot town in the peak of winter. In contrast, the UK was covered in a blanket of snow.
Time moved slowly. There was nowhere to rush off to and no looming to-do list. Our day rotated around the five prayers. There was no distraction of the TV, radio or internet. There was no nine-to-five and it felt rejuvenating. This simplified routine brought us back to basics and with that there was a sense of freedom, tranquillity and relief. Life was stripped back to its essence.
I particularly enjoyed the evenings when, shrouded in the warm glow of our abode, the women would become better acquainted over steaming cups of sweet Turkish tea whilst crocheting, adorning hands with henna patterns or enthusiastically singing qasidas and naats. Snuggled beside the warmth of the stove, I’d write in my journal reflecting on the day’s events. Observing others, I noticed traits in me that I wished to correct and I also witnessed qualities in my sisters that I hoped to cultivate in myself. I was reminded of the hadith, ‘the believer is the mirror of the believer.’
I fell ill. Now, usually when I get a little sniffle back home, the world comes to a standstill. I’ll lie on the sofa comatose (there’s a pattern emerging here somewhere) while my husband takes on the running of the house. It wasn’t so in Cyprus. I kept going although my kind sisters did make me endless cups of herbal concoctions, one of which was a blend of every single spice we could get our hands on. As expected, it tasted pretty vile, but I’d try anything to be healed. I braved the illness, as one of my dear sisters reminded me, ‘all illness is a cleansing’.
There were testing times. People arrived every day and with them they brought their own energy, their own heartbreak, their own purpose. On one particularly stressful morning, even the coffee pot decided it had reached boiling point and exploded in the kitchen spraying us all in henna-coloured coffee granules.
When times got tough and I yearned for the comfort of home, I was reminded of how lucky I was to be here. Fatima, a sister who had travelled all the way from Canada, arrived during breakfast towards the end of our trip. She looked bewildered, ‘I worked so hard to get back here,’ she said as she went off to pray in gratitude.
The tough times were more than outweighed by the times when I felt intense love and unity with my sisters. After Jumu’ah prayers, I felt so much love in the room I wanted to burst into tears. Like any genuine family, we had our ups and downs but I felt that each of us was unique and beautiful in our own way as truly ‘in everything in existence there are signs of Allah’.
Back home in the freezing UK, we reflected upon our journey reminiscing on all the wonderful friends we had made, the delicious meals we had eaten, the warm weather we now longed for, the sites we had visited and the lack of responsibilities and worries that occupied us in those ten days. We yearned to return but my brother-in-law poignantly reminded us that the journey had just begun. Each of us had brought back a special treasure from our spiritual expedition which we now had the responsibility of unlocking. I can’t wait to see where this journey of self-discovery will take me next.
Sobia Shafique-Akhtar grew up in Berkshire and studied at Queen Mary, University of London where she obtained a degree in English. She currently resides in the Welsh countryside with her husband and cat with dreams of living a self-sufficient life.