Living with less

I always had the impression that I was pretty good at spring-cleaning. Never had any qualms about throwing away bags full of the old papers and pamphlets, conference materials, note pads from previous work interviews, and business cards that had somehow accumulated in the drawers of my nightstands.

Opening up a closet teeming with clothes I mostly didn’t wear, I’d cart bag after bag, year after year, to the nearest charity drop off.  Once a neighbour in my Dubai apartment block was preparing a shipment of clothing for a charity. I contributed an entire suitcase full of suit jackets, pants, tops and skirts that had grown too big on me after losing a few kilos after undertaking an exercise program.

De-cluttering my apartment always left me with a sense of ease and relief. And yet, within a few months things would pile up again, requiring another round of maintenance.

Before leaving my, in retrospect, oversized one-bedroom apartment in Dubai last August, I trimmed down a lot of the, well, baggage I had accumulated over eight years, thinking I was taking adequate steps to prepare myself for the inevitably smaller space I would relocate to in London. Let’s just say I overestimated the size of my new home – and underestimated the amount of possessions I was lugging along with me to this vibrant city of tiny Victorian conversions.


About two hours into my house hunt in and around central London, I promptly flung the notion that I had mastered the art of living simply out the window. After choosing an apartment about half the size of my place in Dubai, I waited in dread for the arrival of the truckload of furniture, clothing, books and other belongings that were making their way across the sea to squeeze into my new home.

The shipment arrived one morning in late September. I stood in the empty space that suddenly seemed much smaller than it did when I viewed it, and I watched anxiously as the movers brought up one box after another. I number crunch on a daily basis, so I ever so anxiously realised it was mathematically impossible for everything to fit, but wasn’t quite sure at that moment what to do about it. . All I did know was that I was about to play game of real life game of Tetris in my living room.

I didn’t win, and the first thing to go was the brown three-seater half-leather sofa I had purchased about four years earlier as part of a living room set that, at the time, barely filled the space in my generous seventh-floor living room. The couch didn’t even make it out of the moving truck; its seven-foot length and bulky shape made it too large to even toy with the idea of trying to navigate up the narrow staircase leading to the second-floor apartment. For the sake of this game, we can say it didn’t pass level one.

I would never label myself as extravagant, but I suppose having more space for so many years gave me the excuse to hold on to things and indulge in futile possessions. I wasn’t particularly attached to the sofa, can’t remember a time that I even sat on it.

Although my scenario is slightly cushier, I am reminded of a Hadith, or story of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, that Umar Ibn al-Khattab, Allah bless him and grant him peace, asked the Prophet why he slept on a matt made of palm fibers that left marks on his side, rather than opting for a more comfortable alternative.

“My relationship with this world is like that of a traveller on a hot summer’s day, who seeks shade under a tree for an hour, then moves on,” was the Prophet’s response.

My new home forced me to consider this idea more seriously. I needed to live more like a traveller, carrying less weight around, being more discerning about what I bring into my home, and less tolerant of holding on to excess possessions. This challenge has become an extension of my spiritual journey, which in many ways involves consciously adopting changes in my lifestyle to introduce greater moderation and simplicity.

As I embraced my faith in the past few years, I pray daily to de-clutter my mind and keep life’s struggles and triumphs in perspective. Fasting regularly throughout the year helps me control and rationalize what I eat – and I’m much leaner and healthier now because of it. Giving charity generously and frequently teaches me how to appreciate the blessings in my life and keep my spending habits prudent.

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