Dwelling in My Father’s Garden: The Fragrance of Love | The Ismaili Canada

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Dwelling in My Father’s Garden: The Fragrance of Love

A poet reflects on the spiritual ideals she learned from her dad’s love for nature and gardens

Anar Rajabali
Published September 30, 2020
Ali Rajabali tending to trees. Photo: Courtesy of Ali Rajabali.

“The gardens may flow with beauty, but let us go to the gardener himself”

-Jalaluddin Rumi


I grew up in my father’s garden among the marigolds, magnolias and mountain ash. I grew up planting trees and holly bushes, and feeling the cool dirt in my hands as we sowed potatoes and picked scarlet apples and perfect pears from our ample branches. I remember the smell of jasmine wafting in the breeze and his rough hands tenderly holding the petals of a peaking rose. My father, Ali Rajabali, is a creator and cultivator of beauty. And it was in this garden that he became the bearer of fruits and I learned to see nature’s subtle splendour.

In the garden, I became spiritually literate; as the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson eloquently wrote, “all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence.” Season after season, the land ebbed and flowed with the rhythms of colour and change. Summer’s sunlight soaked the land and winter’s damp darkness followed. Leaves cast shadows and eventually fell to the ground, only to rise again. As my father laboured and lingered, I witnessed and experienced the fruits of his spiritual labour.

My parents came to Vancouver in the 1970s and I was the only child of colour on my street and in my school—a child with one hand in the east and one hand in the west. There was unrest in our hearts, but a sureness that faith would see us through. I was teased and bullied mercilessly. As an educator, I understand, in reflection, that what is unknown to others can bring tension and fear.

My father had insight and the garden brought a hopeful gift. He invited my kindergarten class to our backyard, and we sat in a circle under the shade of our magnolia tree eating fresh apples he picked. In these moments, in the shared experience of nature under the arms of a tree, the garden brought grace and friendship was born. He knew the poetic potential of nature and the power of communal light-filled social spaces.

Students in the courtyard at Aga Khan Academy, Hyderabad. Photo: Gary Otte/AKDN.

As my father continued to dwell in the garden, I became more of a witness as I ceased from cultivating plants to cultivating words. He was a gardener, and I became a poet, both of us fulfilling a desire to know and capture beauty, to colour the world. As he planted lines of tulips, I wrote lines of poetry. As he formed patterns, I played with vowels, consonants and alliteration.

We both stooped in the rhythm of our craft, of what I have come to know as our faith in action toward a spiritual ideal. Here is a place amidst the horizontal and the vertical as in the tree I sat under with my kindergarten class—roots sinking into the soil with branches crowning up into the seamless sky.

My father went on to give his time and knowledge to various projects, such as the Burnaby Lake Jamatkhana landscape in Vancouver, the Ismaili Centre in Dushanbe and the Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad. At Burnaby Lake, pin oak trees line the perimeter of the Jamatkhana, forming nature’s gate with an ushering in of quietude. In Dushanbe, cedar trees pyramid into the sky, stoic and evergreen, and silver birches with striking white bark bestow shade and shadow. At the academy in Hyderabad, fragrant local neem trees provide a soothing smell as students read outdoors on benches.

Nurturing gathering spaces amid Allah’s creation emphasizes the value of stewardship—our responsibility to revere and protect the natural world. To me, my father will always be a guardian of the garden. Like a poet, his desire to form and frame nature to its fullest potential helps him and others find contemplative moments—moments that renew the heart as the human soul intermingles with awe and mystery.

Reflecting landscapes at the Ismaili Centre, Dushanbe. Photo: Farhez Rayani.

My father often expresses, “Plant a tree; thank Allah for something to cherish.” And with each tree he has rooted has come a humbling reminder of creation, a communing with God.

Now our garden is no longer and the old house is gone. New homes sit upon what once was and I have recently returned to this land after a long absence. In this homecoming has come flooding memories of moments upon moments in the garden. What is poignant is that the only remnant that remains is the resilient magnolia tree. As I look out the window to my backyard, I imagine its rhizomatic roots now extended and forged into the dank earth. These living roots branch deep in my heart as arteries pumping full of crimson colour and love. 

My father is much older now and does not have the physical fortitude to dwell in the garden as he once did, as he goes through the end journey of human life. But nature’s life continues with the promise of spring bringing perennial petals; the gardens he has created continue to flourish and strengthen. I resonate with a powerful sentiment from the inauguration of the Aga Khan Park in Toronto where His Highness the Aga Khan said: “The Park and its Gardens can serve as a symbol of ‘connection’… across time linking us to the past.”

Sketch of Ismaili Centre, Dushanbe. Courtesy of AKDN.

The smell of jasmine often transports me to the past—sentimental, nostalgic moments infused with a pedagogical lesson on finding beauty and purpose. In the end, when gratitude cannot be spoken, there is poetry, which I offer here. As with the aroma of an English rose, I hope it lingers with a sweet, enduring fragrance.

Spoken Word: Ali by Anar Rajabali



Gardens are a place 

where the ephemeral meets

the eternal, and

where the eternal meets 

the hand of man*

The hands of my father 

down deep in the ripe rich soil

dwelling in the garden

for forty years of 

weeding, watering,

pruning, root feeding,

tending to the flowers he brings for me

on special days like the rhododendron

he planted when I was ten

to bloom only on my birthday 

in May 

petals of grace peeking

outside my bedroom window

to the graceless child 

a father who knew 

the wisdom of plants

cultivating a silent form of love

I could not see then

his heart in the soul of a flower 

ruby red in rough hands

how his faith came in these moments



I keenly remember 

my kindergarten class

in our backyard

and how we sat in a circle

eating red delicious apples

picked from our tree

he put in a silver bucket

for our eager hands

and vanilla ice cream, too,

he knew that gardens can make friends

to the only child of colour

A rootedness to the unrooted

the fruits of his own spiritual labour



One Sunday visit I asked him:

Dad, can you tell me about the garden? 

Yes, yes, we have 

pink dogwood,

Japanese plum,

azaleas…deciduous (he stressed),

boxwood hedges, I made them round,

five of them, for each one of us,

Rosa Hansa,

Rowan mountain ash,



clematis…deeply fragrant it is!

Crimson King maple,

Yucca gloriosa,





Bartlett pear,

Bing cherry,



And I started to feel the poetry

in the nature of his own creations

wearing the colours of his spirit

a unity in this work

with the hands that sowed the Earth

that always gave back—

to him. 


You have made me most happy by asking me, Anar,

as he brought me some jasmine,

but I was silent—

And on the way home I said to myself softly:

Oh, Dad, you have made me most happy,



* Excerpt from a speech delivered by His Highness the Aga Khan at the inauguration of the Aga Khan Park in Toronto on May 25, 2015. 


A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of The Ismaili Canada.

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