Saturday, July 29, 2006

Searching for the Sufi Soul

Most Americans, if asked to name their most immediate associations with Islam and the Middle East, would unhesitatingly reply with words like “terrorism”, “fundamentalism”, and “fanaticism”. From the drama of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1978-9, to the frightful tyranny of Saddam Hossain in Iraq, to the tragic list of victims in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation – the list of negative media impressions seems endless. Yet at a time when the U.S. government has been in a sharply antagonistic relation with Iran and other Muslim countries, an unofficial cultural encounter of profound proportions has quietly been taking place. A thirteenth-century Muslim mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, is now the best-selling poet in America. Not only is the poetry of Rumi finding a major audience, but additional manifestations of Sufism, such as the mystic dance of the Whirling Dervishes, and the entrancing qawwali music of Pakistani singer, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, have now had a remarkable impact on Western audiences and performers.

For over a thousand years, Sufism – the mystical aspect of Islam – has been a major factor in the lives of most Muslims. For those who are accustomed to hearing only the authoritarian pronouncements of Muslim fundamentalists, this may come as a surprise. Yet if one looks beyond the level of media debates, there are numerous examples of Sufism's influence in Muslim societies today. Whether one visits Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, China, or Indonesia, Muslims reveal their great devotion to those Sufi saints who provide a model for how one becomes close to God. Based on the Qur'anic revelation and the model of the Prophet Muhammad, Sufism became a spiritual method that deeply penetrated all levels of Muslim society. It offered an interior vista on the practices of Islam, developed through the discipline of the Sufi orders in deepened prayer and meditation. There are literally hundreds of Sufi authors in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and other languages.

Interest in Sufism is experiencing something of a major revival today not only in the West but throughout South Asia and among the South Asian diaspora, as witnessed in a sudden spurt of publications on the subject, plays and movies produced along Sufi themes, a new range of Sufi music tapes hitting the markets, and even hot couture taking ideas from Sufism. Muzaffar Ali, an Indian painter, filmmaker and designer with his architect wife Meera, founded their fashion label “Kotwara” in 1990, deeply inspired by Sufism, while in this year’s Lakmé India Fashion Week, renowned designer Manish Malhotra designed an all-white collection called “Freedom”, again inspired by Sufism.

Undeniably, the genre that has gained the most popularity riding the Sufism bandwagon is music. The philosophy of Sufi music is very easy to understand – it’s about life, affinity, love, reality and the ultimate search for God. And Sufi music mixed with an international sound have proved to have quite a global appeal. The sound is exotic and very different from the run-of-the-mill music that plays all over. Witness the fame of “Allah Ke Bande Hasde”, sung by Kailash Kher in the film ‘Waisa Bhi Hota Hain’, as well as Rabbi Shergill’s Sufi rock rendition of Baba Bullah Shah’s “Bulla Ki Jaana”.

But is everyone exploiting the sudden interest in Sufism all for the sake of commercial breakthroughs? Is it merely another fad soon to be over-enthusiased to death? Apparently no. Luckily there are those conscientious few who do have a deeper agenda.

Salman Ahmad, best known as lead guitarist of “Junoon”, a Pakistani-American rock band that has sold over 25 million albums (as many as Nirvana, ZZ Top and Janet Jackson have sold in the United States), has become a pivotal figure in the war between moderate and extremist Islam by promoting interfaith understanding. Junoon, which Ahmad formed in 1990, created a distinctive sound – electric rock braided with Pakistani folk music and lyrics that draw from the Qur'an and Sufi poets like Rumi and Baba Bullah Shah. “My inspiration comes from a lot of these Sufi poets, and the fact that they saw the world as one,” Ahmad said. “I'm a believer, and a lot of my music and my life take inspiration from faith. And the Qur'an is a huge source of inspiration.” Ahmad says the vast majority of Muslims are moderate, but that they need to do a better job of explaining their religion. “Everybody says, ‘It's a religion of peace.’ Well, all religions are religions of peace. But what does your identity stand for?” he said.

Ahmad’s a performer whose faith-based music reaches millions of Muslims, prompting comparisons to another do-good rocker, U2's Bono. The BBC, in the documentary ‘The Rock Star and the Mullahs’, chronicled how Ahmad challenged fundamentalists to show where in the Qur'an music is forbidden. Yahya Hendi, a Muslim imam and chaplain at Georgetown University and member of the Islamic Fiqh (Jurisprudence) Council of North America, says there is “absolutely nothing” in the Qur'an or Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that prohibits music. On the contrary, Islam needs musicians like Ahmad, perhaps even more than it needs religious leaders, Hendi says. “Music is a universal language. Every human being connects with it. Not everyone connects with religious voices. Musicians can put out the message that Islam is a religion of love, compassion and peace better than clergy,” he said.

And now, in our own soil, we have the folk fusion band Bangla, trying to convey the same ideas through their second album, “Prottutponnomotito” where all the songs are the baul geetis of Lalon Shah, the Baulshomrat. Traditionally bauls were Hindus; Sufism was started following the lifestyle of Lalon Shah. Bangla, through their fusion renditions of Lalon geeti, wanted to reach the youth as well as the old generation, with Lalon's lyrics that oppose religious intolerance, cartelism, sectarianism, and colonialism.

Tareque Masud, who assisted Bangla in their “Prottutponnomotito” project, is the acclaimed director of “Matir Moina”, an autobiographical first feature, set against the backdrop of the turbulent period of late '60s, which reflects the silent suffering of Masud’s childhood, sending a poignant message of following religion blindly at the cost of human life and happiness. About the growing fundamentalism, Tareque says, “the situation is all the more same throughout the world. In today's context, 'Matir Moina' is extremely relevant as it sends the message of harmony, tolerance and egalitarianism. In this film, I have shown how Sufism can act as a protective umbrella for the country to save it from heading towards fundamentalism.”

All of this, in part, reflects a distaste for and a search for an alternative to an exclusivist, narrowly defined understanding of Islam that rightly repels many people – the search to replace the obscurantist and hate-spewing version of the faith championed by a range of radical Islamists who see all non-Muslims as, by definition, ‘enemies of God’. In contrast to the latter, Sufism is presented as generously ecumenical, and as reaching out and embracing people of every caste or creed. In short, Sufism is presented as the ‘gentle’ side of Islam and for many, to whom political news is simply inadequate to handle the larger human truths of the spirit, the language to teach the soul of acceptance.

To learn more about Sufism please visit International Association of Sufism, a non-profit organization and a DPI/NGO of the United Nations.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Arranged Marriage…An Anachronism?

Picture this: you’re watching a documentary on Discovery Channel…your ma’s sitting beside you…a lion strolls by on the TV screen, then perhaps a lioness. She promptly turns to you and demands, ‘Son, when are you getting married? You have a girl in mind? I know this wonderful family…blah, blah”. Sounds ludicrous? It shouldn’t, as that’s how single minded most parents can be about their 20-something kids’ marital status. Let’s ponder on it, shall we?

Westerners tout love marriage, deriding arranged marriages as backward, uncivilized and primitive. When debating the success of arranged versus love marriages, proponents of arranged marriage claim that it’s more successful, but their definition of success usually focuses on divorce rates. But are divorce rates really a measure of successful marriage? Think about it – divorce reflects poorly on a typical Bangali family, so some proportion of arranged marriages endure not because they are successful, but because leaving them would bring such shame. Hence, people marry as strangers and stay strangers all their lives – a prospect I can’t bear thinking of for myself. But there’s always the other end of the spectrum. There are many arranged marriages that start out based only on infatuation but grow stronger as time pass. And admit it, Westerners have made the progression toward ‘love’ marriage unnecessarily agonizing. It’s absurd how a couple in America can date for years and still not know if they want to get married. Most of my friends state that they’d only need 6 to 7 months max to get to know someone before they get married. Plus, I’ve seen a lot of love marriages end in bitter divorces.

I know the harshest arranged marriages are those almost forced upon the bride or groom – parents are so confident of their child agreeing to whomever they arrange their marriage with, they don’t bother asking for their opinion before finalizing everything – the guy/girl is then left with little choice but to agree. Then there’s emotional pressure/blackmail – parents beseeching their children to agree to a proposal before they die, etc. etc. These days however, most marriages, across all cultures, are what’s called the ‘semi-arranged marriage’. Your parents, friends, etc., set up an introduction with someone they consider to be eligible. Remember how Bridget Jones’ mum was always trying to find her a boyfriend in the hope that he’ll turn into a husband? That’s why some proponents of arranged marriage say that it’s no different than your mom setting you up on a date. However, in our social and cultural context, there’s a huge difference.

Here, parents put the word out in the community grapevine: Dad’s aunt knows a nice family in Atlanta whose nephew is an electrical engineer. Mom’s university classmate has a cousin whose daughter’s working in a renowned MNC. Parents run matrimonial classifieds (in India this has progressed on to a dizzying array of Web sites like say, and hundreds of biodatas are duly scrutinized. Marriages are considered a union of two families, not merely two individuals, so bloodlines and reputations matter. Beauty, ethnicity, religion, education, social/financial status and even horoscopes are contemplated! There are times when a guy’s mom would reject girls because of the smallest ‘defects’ – over-qualified as a career woman, under-qualified when it comes to looks. Or because of the girl being a bit older than the guy (even by a few months). I’m sure most of you, like me, have been rejected by, or have had your family reject, many prospects for one or more of the above reasons – quite an embarrassing state of affairs when you think how superficial some of them really are.

After the initial ‘screening’ comes your role – the biggest hitch in the whole process. Most families want a wedding, and they want it pronto but disapprove of or forbid dating. You’re not allowed to take the time it takes to get to know someone. You have to decide on a deadline – kind of like closing a business deal….ugh! One of my friend’s relatives think that after he’s spent three or four evenings with a girl, he ought to know – she’s his future bride or she’s history. But that’s so absurd! Can you know only after two or three months (let alone meetings) whether you share compatible interests and personalities, whether you’ll respect and live with each other’s incompatibilities, whether you’ll receive emotional support from each other’s families? I’ve a friend who is absolutely terrified that his parents are going to select a girl according to their values, but who won’t understand music – his profession and his life. Plus, since one-on-one meeting is still taboo here, most couples get together along with their parents or, in more liberal families, with a chaperone. Now, you try meeting your future wife or husband for those few times before your wedding decision, in front of your parents and striking up a conversation with her. One of my colleagues related how once, when she went to meet the prospective groom, the whole motley crew from his side, not just his parents, was there - that too in a shopping complex of all places!

It’s great when you see more and more parents now accepting love marriages, indicating a widening open-minded society and the increasing trust parents have in their children’s maturity and life choices. So when it comes to arranged marriages, is it asking too much, for parents to extend that much trust to allow their kids to meet alone over something as harmless as a cup of coffee? And in this era of cell phones, e-mails and msn/yahoo messenger, can’t the guy and girl in question be given the time needed to know each other well enough to decide on, what is after all, their future? I think it’s a great way of reaching a middle ground between ‘traditional values’ and a ‘modern outlook’. Wouldn’t you agree?

At the end of the day, what it finally comes down to is that, as in all marriages, whether arranged or not, some work and some don’t. No matter how long you know a person, there are bound to be issues after marriage. It’s how you cope with them that determine if you can live together happily ever after.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Halcyon Deshi Summer Days

Grishsho…I love grishsho! I love the haze, the heat, the humidity, the long days and the evenings spent half-listening to favorite music tracks while catching up on some fun reading. I don't know why I don't seem to have as much free time in the winter – my schedule stays the same – maybe it's just that time seems to move more slowly in the heat, and that I change my priorities from ‘clean my room’ to ‘don a ratty, cotton tee and gypsy skirt that’s seen better days; fix some refreshing, chilled jug of lebu’r shorbot or if I’m feeling lazy, Tang; and just chill in front of the TV’.

Grishsho or summer in this city of ours stands for so many, myriad of snap-shot memories or events. There’s inhaling the fragrances and appreciating the blazing hues of the lush flowers in perfect bloom – the regal rojonigondhas, the sunny shonalu and kodomphuls, the fiery red krishnochuras and rongons (the latter which I used to pick as a child to suck out the honey nectar inside), and the sweet-smelling beli, bokul, jui and gondhorajs. There’s eating something really cold on a really hot day, which tends to send an ache right through your jaws and head, but feels oh so great. There’s standing for hours-on-end under the invigorating beat of a cool, cool shower, feeling the rivulets of water roll down your scalp and skin, soothing your over-heated body. There’s the sudden increase in TV commercials and press ads for ice creams, icy soft drinks, air conditioners, and prickly heat powders.

There’s the onset of thunderstorms and rains from Pahela Baishakah onwards, falling in synchronized plunges into the lakes and ponds, and which bring with them one of the bestest grishsho smells ever – bhija maatir shoda gondho. Too bad you can’t bottle it up and market it, haha. And you hear the timeless composition of Mother Nature – the roll of thunder, the rimjhim and tapurtupur of brishti, the cricketycrick of crickets, the croaks of frogs – pure music to the ears.

There’re the fresh, fresh summer fruits and veggies. I love the variety and all the beautiful colors! I remember as a kid eagerly awaiting my father’s return from the kaacha bajar with sopping bags teeming with luscious aams, juicy lichus and pungent kathaals. Brings back some delightful memories of being a carefree kid on a sultry summer afternoon, gulping down all the yummy treats till it felt my tummy was gonna burst. I still over-indulge these days! Guess some things never change, thank god!

Then there are a few items on the ‘I-can-definitely-do-without-these-during-grishsho’ list. There’s the dratted load shedding which goes with the territory of summers in Dhaka city, making the heat more unbearable. There’s the chance of getting food poisoning after having some questionable looking glass of juice from a street-side vendor. There’s bugs, particularly mosquitoes and ants, which suddenly seen to come alive in the armies! There’s having your clothes stick to your skin, all clammy and irritating. But these ‘concerns’ seem paltry compared to all the great things about summer.

All in all, grishsho kaal has it’s own addictive charm. So I’m gonna pull up an easy chair, nurse a glass of chilled float in my hands, and just take a load off my feet and lie back to enjoy the season in all its glory. Care to join me?

A quote by Neil Gaiman (British Author)

Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and opens your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this whole armor, for years, so no one can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life.... You give them a piece of you. They don't ask for it. They do something dumb one day, like kiss you or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase like 'maybe we should just be friends' turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the mind. It's a soul hurt, a body hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.

(the character Rose Walker in 'The Sandman', originally a comic book series)

One Day

Like any other day
But destined to be different
Going through all those
Stupid, meaningless gestures
Making all those
Vapid, worthless comments
Running after
One’s so-called ‘goals’ in life
Of the ‘enlightened’ civilization
And then without warning
All the color
All the music
Is sucked out of your life
Leaving nothing
But blinding blackness
Slow motion
With no destination
This is how it felt
This is how it feels
When someone you cherish
Leaves you forever
This is how it will feel
For someone else
Who cherishes me
To see me leave
One day
Like any other day
But destined to be different