Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fifth Blog Message, Also Before Christmas

A visit to a Sufi service:

In my last blog message, I mentioned that I had met a young Iranian fellow who is living now in Sulaimani to set up a new business. I also said that he was a participant in a Sufi-like group in Iran. What I did not have space or time to write about last time is that he has sought out and participates in one of the oldest Sufi brotherhoods, the Qadiriya Tariqa, that happens to have an active group in Sulaimani. In my Manchester College days so many years ago one of my colleagues photographed and tape recorded a Sufi service in Cairo, Egypt, and then prepared a module of slides and cassette tape narrative illustrating that service. Ever since watching and listening to his materials, which I used regularly when teaching about religion in the Middle East, I have been fascinated with the Sufis. Their conscious decision to gather regularly, and then to be led through a well-ordered liturgy of chants and body motions so as to work themselves into religious ecstasy seemed then and still seems to run so counter to the prevailing secular, rational culture. The most famous of Turkish Sufis who do this today are the so-called whirling dervishes whose graceful circular motions are an esthetic wonder. There are many other groups from India to North Africa. But the point is, I have been interested in Sufis.

When I asked my young friend if he thought that the local Sufis would permit him to bring a visitor, he indicated that it would be O.K. So on Thursday, December 9, he and I went to the compound of Sheikh Muhammad al-Kasnazani, of the Kasnazani branch of the Qadiriya Tariqa. Sheikh Muhammad claims to be the 33rd in a line of religious leaders who trace their origin to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th c. CE, and he is highly revered by the adherents to this branch of Sufism. He was not there on the night we attended, but when he is in town he lives in a large house in the middle of the compound where he receives visitors. The number of persons in the compound expands dramatically when he is there.

On the night of our visit, we were stopped at the gate, and before we could enter, the guards had call to someone in the compound to ask for special permission for me to be admitted. They asked me to give up my camera, and they took ID pictures of both of us before we were allowed in. As we walked up a narrow lane within the compound, we were invited into a small room with a group of men, two of whom spoke decent English. They were curious about me. Why did I want to come there? Did I just want to see them do strange things? (Context for this question: this group is known for doing painful things to their bodies, e.g., cutting themselves without apparent bleeding or later damage, so as to prove their connection with the divine.) My answer: I simply wanted to observe a Sufi service so I could better understand this part of Islam. I had no interest in seeing anyone hurt himself. Seeing them would help me to interpret more accurately the nature of the religion. While the questions were not adversarial, I had a sense that in the past they have had to deal with people who came more exploit than to understand.

After a few minutes of conversation, they said that the dhikr, the organized service, was about to start. As we approached the room where the service was being held, I could hear a steady drumbeat, and once in the room could see a group of four drummers holding different size drums and standing at one end of a group of about 50 to 60 men ranged in a rectangular formation consistent with the shape of the room. The walls of the room were covered in shiny white tiles, while on the floor was a rather thin, well worn inexpensive rug. On one wall were hanging a number of framed pictures and holy writings, one of which was the list written in elaborate calligraphy of the 33 sheikhs of this tariqa. In one corner of the room and outside the circle of men, sat 5 or 6 women who did not participate, that I could see. I asked that my friend and I stand off to the side and outside the group, as I did not want my presence to be disruptive to their service. A few of the participants took a glance at me, but for the most part it appeared that they were too deeply involved in the actions of the dhikr to care about me. In the group were men of all ages and all economic status, if clothes can be said to help infer status. There were even some young boys ranging in age from under 5 years of age to perhaps early teens.

As we entered the room, the men were standing in place and swaying their bodies first to the left, then to the right, all in unison and in pace with the drum beats. After several minutes of this cadence, the beat changed and the men held their bodies more still, but moved their heads in a kind of left-right, semi-circular motion. I wanted desperately to look at these men, but feared this would be intrusive, so I mostly just looked at the floor and glanced periodically at the group. A leader walked about in the open space of the circle and indicated to the drummers the moment to change the beat that appeared to signal the change of motions. The next step in the service saw the men drop to their knees and lean forward, so that their foreheads almost touched the floor. This is one of the postures taken in a normal Islamic prayer ritual. After doing this for several minutes the men raised themselves up so that they could sit on the floor on bended knees. At some point the signal was given that the formal service was over and a number of men left. This part of the service lasted for perhaps 20 minutes.

For the last part of the service, the remaining persons stayed on their knees and participated with one of the group leaders in group singing. The leader would sing what sounded like the verse of a song and the group came in on what sounded like a chorus. It was all really very lovely. While singing, several of the men closed their eyes, tilted their heads toward the ceiling, and held their arms outstretched with hands open and upturned. No one had any prayer books or hymn books; all of the words came from memory. After perhaps 10 minutes of singing, the music stopped, the service ended, and the men went out into the dark night. It was hard to know where they were going: outside the compound, or inside the compound.

After the service, my friend and I stayed on for a while to talk with the same men who greeted us on our way in. They were curious to know what I thought, and I told them that it was all very meaningful to me to observe. I expressed my gratitude for their allowing me to visit. They, in turn, indicated that I would be welcome anytime I wanted to come back. It was all very friendly, something I am not surprised about. Hospitality to strangers who come in peace is one of the gifts of vast majority of people in this region.

As I reflect on this experience, I am reminded that Sufism brought to Islam an aspect that appeals to the emotional side of the human experience. My recollections of this experience lead me to believe that the participants sincerely wanted this experience, perhaps even yearned for it. It would be difficult for me to know. How can one ever know the motivation in the soul of the participant of any religious ceremony? How does a child of the Enlightenment ever fully understand or participate in such an emotional exercise?

(I am sorry for the lack of photos for this entry. That I was not allowed to bring a camera to the service has forced me to use words instead of digital images to describe what I experienced.)

As I conclude these words, I am sitting in a comfortable chair in my own den in my own house in Indiana. I am home for the Christmas break. The flights home were long, but uneventful. I am grateful for safe travels and look forward to being with my family for the holidays.

I wish for all a peaceful world in this holiday season. Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fourth Blog Message, just before Christmas

It's Friday morning, a day of the week that continues to feel like a Saturday at home. The work week is over, and we have a two day weekend break before classes resume on Sunday. I have already done a load of washing and have it hanging on the line in the spare bedroom. I have swept and mopped the apartment, a task that sometimes feels futile. It seems that there is always fine dust in the air, and this dust settles on everything. Within a few days from now, the floors of my apartment will have a slightly gritty sound and feel as I walk about. The first photo is of the dust that accumulated in a 5 foot by 5 foot area of the floor of the study in less than one week.

I continue my teaching of English composition. On most days I have a sense that the work is worth it. On some days, when the students have been more reluctant than usual to do the hard work of writing, editing, and then taking a marked and graded paper back to the textbook to read about how they can fix problems for the next paper, I wonder if it is worth it. Students have as much as said to me, “writing in English is too hard; I hate to do it.” I commiserate with them, tell them I have no idea what it is like to write in a second language as I have never done this, and then try to encourage them to think of the advantage they will bring to the job market if they can excel at this most important skill. I remind that at Asiacell, the big cell phone provider in this part of Iraq, the required language of communication is English. And this is a company owned a local man, not by an outside, Western conglomerate with imperialistic intolerance of local language. (For more on the spread of English as a global language see a new book by Leslie Dunton-Downer entitled _The English is Coming!: How One Language is Sweeping the World_. Ever wondered where the words “shampoo” or “hello” came from and how they have become understandable around the globe? She will tell you.) So I plow on in the field of teaching English composition with ever greater appreciation for those who have managed this difficult task year by year without losing hope.

As challenging as the in-class teaching is, my sidewalk and office conversations with students from this year and from last continue to be rewarding. We end up talking about life, religion, roles of men and women, philosophy and a great deal more. One student wants me to buy on his behalf (he will pay, he insists) and bring back in January a copy of Karen Armstrong’s Battle for God. He and I have talked faith and agnosticism and existentialism. He’s very bright; his questions remind me of my questions at his age. Another has been by to talk about whether the Solomon of the Old Testament was imbued with the ability to do magic, as he is in the Quran. The answer to his question, of course, is that the Solomon of the Old Testament was a king and a wise man but did not have magical powers. Still, we compared passages in the Quran and the Old Testament, and it was a helpful learning experience for both of us. Yet another needed help in arguing the contra side in a debate on the topic “women can be as great at art and music as men.” Poor student, she had to argue the opposite even though she didn’t believe in what she had to argue. We found some helpful sources, and later she told me she won the debate even though she did not believe in the position she had to argue. I counseled another young man about some rash words he had used in his Facebook page, words, I thought, that could come back to haunt him some day. Another student wanted to know the passages in the Old Testament that were used by the Catholic church of the 17th century to “prove” that Galileo was wrong. We found them in Exodus and Ecclesiastes.

Most recently I have talked with a young Iranian man who is in Sulaimani attempting to start up a joint venture effort with a German company that makes building materials. He participates in a Sufi-like group, and has had mystical experiences. (FYI, the Sufis are Islamic mystical groups that have grown up around powerful spiritual leaders whose authority has come to contemporary spiritual leaders in a chain of authority dating back to the Prophet Muhammad. One of the more famous Sufis is a fellow named al-Rumi, one of the few Sufis to be known in the West. ) My young Iranian friend is curious about mysticism in Christianity and Judaism, and I have offered to find a book or two for him. One of his statements has stayed with me: “The more I study, the more I understand and love Jesus as well as the Prophet Muhammad. I mean, I truly love Jesus.” How do I respond to this statement? There are Christians who would struggle to make such a statement.

In describing my conversations with all of these students, I make no claim to being the Great Intellectual Savior from the West, but, as I state above, these impromptu sessions mean a great deal to me because they represent genuine curiosity on the part of students, and they push to me think about what I know and what I believe.

Two significant events have occurred since my last message. Both deserve comment.

The first was a luncheon held for faculty and staff at a large resort hotel in Dukan, a city located about an hour northeast of Sulaimani. The sponsor for the lunch was Dr. Barham Salih, one of the local Kurdish leaders who is most responsible for the founding of AUIS. Dr. Barham is also, now, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the body responsible for the administration of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. He greeted us warmly, then left for an hour long interview with the bureau chief of the New York Times, and then rejoined us for lunch. The staff and faculty had ample opportunity to talk with each other in a lovely setting, the pool of the resort hotel called Ashur Hotel that overlooks Lake Dukan. A delicious lunch was served around 2:00 p.m., when we were all famished. The meal was one of the best I have had here. Lots of local food was served, food that normally is not available in restaurants. See next three photos, of the luncheon setting from the hotel window, the pool, and the picture of Dr. Barham, one of the staff of AUIS and myself next to this pool.

The second event worth noting was what we in the Western Christian tradition would call a dedication service. This service was for the opening of a new mosque located near the Pak City apartment complex where the ex-pat faculty and staff of AUI-S live. One of our students, who comes from a well-to-do local family that provided the money for the construction of the mosque, invited two other faculty members and me to attend. Through much of last year, as Carolyn and I watched the agonizingly slow progress on this building project, we were trying to figure out why it was taking so long to build this mosque. After attending the opening ceremony last week I came to understand why. It is a beautiful building with interesting and time consuming architectural features that emphasize the role of the Quran in the Islamic faith. For example, above the main prayer area is a large dome, the base of which contains passages from the Quran. The letters of these verses have been carved from the plaster and are painted a rich gold against a green background. Above the niche, called mihrab, from which messages are delivered, and also above the qibla, the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, a large replica of an open Quran was applied to the ceiling. The building the mosque took a long time to finish because of the intricate detail inside and outside of the building. The result is quite striking.

The AUIS student I referred to above stayed with the two other AUIS faculty and me during the dedication service, and during this time he interpreted the meaning of the speeches of several of the speakers, including the man responsible for Islam in Iraq and the man responsible for Islam in the Kurdistan Region. The first photo below is a picture of the latter individual and me. What I remember of our student’s translation of the words spoken at the service is the need for good Muslims to give back to their communities, and the need for Muslims to live lives of peace. Not a bad message for any faith tradition. The next three photos show the outside and parts of the interior of the mosque, while the last photo shows the family who have been involved in the building of the mosque.

(The photo above is worth double clicking on, as much more detail can be seen.)

By this time next week, I will be on my way home for the Winter Break of AUIS. I am looking forward to being with family and friends after a two month absence. I will return in the first week of January 2011 to complete the six remaining weeks of the fall term which ends in the latter part of February.

I offer my wishes for a meaningful holiday season and I thank each of you who takes the time to read my thoughts.