15 October 2010

Bonked on the head by a coconut of wakefulness

KABUL, Afghanistan—A colleague of mine emailed me a pair of poems a couple of nights ago and by the time I read them the second time I had a lump in my throat the size of a cauliflower. “She’s been reading my mail,” I thought. She doesn’t know me well enough to know how spiritually impoverished I am.

We have briefly talked a few times and her remarks indicated she was a spiritual seeker, a status I once occupied, walked away from, and then ran from. In recent years, I have avoided most talk about spirituality because I have grown to loathe the organized faiths, especially the monotheistic trio from the Abrahamic tradition. Too many monotheists, particularly Christians and Muslims, are so adept at hating and killing in the name of God that I will not engage with them or the theological assumptions they insist upon.

My colleague is an American convert to Islam, which means she embraced her new faith in a society with a relatively high level of religious tolerance. The poetry she sent was by the 14th century Persian Muslim poet widely known as Hafez (Khwāja Šamsu d-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī; one of his poems appears on the lower right of this page). Hafez practiced an expansive and earthy Islam, more like that associated with the better known Rumi, the Sufi mystic, poet and theologian from the 13th century.

I have spent the last four years in what might be loosely called the Muslim world. Kyrgyzstan, where I lived and worked the first two years, is 75 percent Muslim and while there are some conservative believers, particularly in the south, most wear their faith like a loose coat, much like many Americans who were raised in a popular culture in which Christian and secular beliefs melded. By contrast, the Afghan population is 99 percent Muslim, which includes some medieval expression of the faith. This is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the judicial system, at least in theory, is based on a mix of both of Sharia and constitutional law. Social problems, solutions and analysis are typically framed within a paradigm that requires conformity with the religion.

Afghan society has had little recent experience with religious pluralism, especially after the civil war amongst largely ethnic armies all claiming allegiance to Islam and then the fundamentalist Taliban, who ran off the few remaining pockets of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews. And since 9/11, many Muslims here and elsewhere have become reflexively and understandably defensive in response to the Islamohobic rhetoric and behavior fanned into flames by Western bigots who are overwhelmingly Christian. And while there are hundreds of thousands of nominally Christian military personnel, aid workers, and contract personnel here, they are not citizens, few stay long, they live apart from locals, and they don’t mix much outside the workplace.

Islam is draped over Afghan society, even relatively liberal Kabul, like a large, wet, thick blanket. (Imagine living in a United States that was 99 percent Christian instead of merely 76 percent.) Now that the nearby mosque has installed a new public address system, the calls to prayer have been augmented by preaching mullahs. I don’t know enough Dari to know what they are talking about, but they seldom sound happy or joyful. Their tones, volume and cadence remind me of the Irish Catholic priests of my youth who were far more interested in telling me what to think then how to think.

Out of this stifling conformity, from someone I hardly know, I am delivered utterly relevant and timely words that were penned almost seven centuries ago by someone I never heard of before. Imagine that.

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