I can’t decide whether Patan is more fascinating by day or by night, or maybe in the transition. Here’s just a taste, which can’t at all do justice to the rich and constantly changing life all around. (Click to enlarge an image.)
My apartment is on the second floor (US, third) near Kumbeshwar Temple complex in Patan. It’s in one of several 4-6 story buildings surrounding a small courtyard, called Dhumbahal Square.
Thus far, it’s similar to the courtyard behind the flat in London where we stayed with our good friend Jane on the way to Nepal. That courtyard had well-groomed bushes and trees, walkways, and convenient benches. It offered a peaceful respite from city life.
The one in Patan is a different story entirely. It’s 100 feet square, about the same size as the average US suburban lot–1/4 acre. But in that 1/4 acre there’s more to see than anyone can absorb.
There’s a Buddhist stupa in the middle. Around the perimeter one finds a communal water source, a small Hindu mandir, a tiny shop that miraculously produces any item you can name, a beauty parlor (and training center), a (motor)bike wash and repair center, a small convenience store, a weather station on top of one of the buildings, and other establishments I haven’t identified yet.
Water is brought by truck to fill large, black plastic tanks on the top of each building. That water becomes the tap water, getting its pressure from the height of the tanks. It’s filtered, but most people drink bottled water for safety. Mine comes in 20 liter clear plastic jugs, which fit into a dispenser tank.
The ground is covered about a third with bricks. Some of those form a sort of patio, others are arranged in a curving pattern as if they knew exactly where most people would like to walk. There’s also a slate paved area, some concrete, lots of bare ground, and amazingly, a little grass. I haven’t figured out why one surface is one place rather than another, but it all seems to work.
As remarkable as some of these objects may be, it is the activities around them that cause one to sit mesmerized on the balcony, just watching.
A woman tosses millet in the air to remove chaff; another takes an offering with candles and flowers to the temple; a man splashes water on the ground to reduce the dust; boys roll an abandoned motorcycle tire around the stupa, as two girls walk around the same monument turning the prayer wheels; a young man washes his motorcycle; an older man gets an open-air shave and haircut; a young couple take endless photos of their young child; women hang laundry and water flower pots; children play rock pitching games. It’s notable how often fathers are caring for children. One older boy (12) runs to pick up a younger one (6) who’s fallen. He comforts him and brushes the dust off his pants. The children also sing and dance.
Meanwhile, there’s construction. Although Patan may be the oldest city in the Kathmandu Valley, dating back more than two millennia, and the courtyard is in one of its oldest parts, there’s a feel of new building everywhere.
Some of this is needed re-construction after the damage of the 2015 earthquake. But workers are building new apartments, too, reflecting early gentrification of the area. One man digs a mysterious hole that ends up being 8 feet deep with surprisingly straight sides. Later, small boys use the dirt from the hole as a site for play and the uncovered rocks for their pitch & toss games. A small crew puts up a cell tower, without using any harnesses or visible safety equipment. The construction goes on amidst the young children playing, older ones coming and going from school, adults working and relaxing.
Observing all of this is like a watching a complex movie, except it’s one that is showing 360° around, with sights and sounds, but also with tastes and smells, touch, heat and cold.
There is no beginning to the courtyard’s day; one moment segues into the next 24/7. A dog may start barking at 2 in the morning and soon have dozens of others to talk with. I can’t give a full account of the day, as I’m mercifully learning to sleep through most of it. But sometime around 5 in the morning is an important inflection point.
That’s when I hear the first temple bells–one is deep and loud, two are middle volume, but one of those is high pitched. There are several smaller ones, too. If the dogs weren’t already going they soon make up for lost time. Motorcycles start up. Human voices come in, conversing rapidly or yelling. Before long children are running and squealing about. In little gaps, one can hear pigeons cooing, crows cawing, and songbirds singing. The roosters manage to make themselves heard above it all.
This continues throughout the day, although each hour has its distinctive character. There are sounds of children laughing, singing, and squealing at play from the nearby school. There’s even a time in the afternoon when all but one dog decides it’s too much trouble to bark anymore. That one gives a few desultory yaps, but I can tell that his heart isn’t in it. In the evening, there’s the dinnertime chatter all around, and later, Nepali pop music.
One day, the signature event was a wedding. Although it seemed to involve most of the courtyard and many visitors, it didn’t stop all the other activities. We saw a 50 foot long tent being erected and red plastic chairs being set up in rows. Soon, a 14-piece band appeared. There were of course many photos, of babies and children and women in beautiful saris. There were also a number of young men in what must be called dandy outfits and poses.
Chaos and peace
On first encounter, the chaos of the courtyard is disturbing–too many scary dogs snarling, too much noise, too many strange sights, sounds, and smells, too many chances to trip on rocks or broken pavement.
But the courtyard is actually a very safe place, away from the street traffic and noise, and where people know one another.
After a while it all, or most of it anyway, begins to make sense. There are patterns and relations that fit into a larger whole. I begin to recognize faces and they mine. One child loves to talk in broken Nepali/English; another seems too shy to say anything. The apparent chaos is actually welcoming, enriching, overcoming difference. There’s peace in the bustle that is less apparent in quiet solitude.
Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.
We’re enjoying another year of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema. This film festival was founded in 2012 by Rebecca M. Alvin, an independent filmmaker, professor of Film Studies at the New School, writer, and editor of Provincetown Magazine.
Alvin says that the festival addresses “a blind spot in the canon of film.” It includes works made by filmmakers of Arab and/or Middle Eastern descent living around the world. Most of these films are difficult for Americans to access. The films themselves go a long way on their own to foster cross-cultural understanding. Even so, the festival format enhances that by allowing interaction with the filmmakers and critics, and dialogue among the attendees.
Opening night in Chatham featured a Lebanese comedy (the first of the festival’s history), Assad Fouladkar’s Halal Love (and Sex). There was also a delicious spread of taboulli, satay, meatballs, ghorayeba, kunafeh, and more.
In Wellfleet, we saw Taste of Cherry by the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Jamsheed Akrami, professor of film studies at William Paterson University, led a discussion of Kiarostami’s work and this film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997.
Iranian cinema is a thriving industry, making more than 100 films a year, Akrami points out. At the Oscars in February, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman” won best foreign-language film. Yet the nation’s laws are stringent: Women are banned from singing and dancing in Iranian films. Any contact between men and women — hugging, even holding hands — is illegal.
It’s remarkable that some of these films were even made. For example, the government in Iran has imposed strict codes that force female characters to keep their hair covered even in the privacy of their homes, contrary to custom. There can be no touching of male and female characters, even if say, a mother and son playing the parts of a mother and son wanted to touch.
However, a focus on the censorship of the films would miss much larger themes. Along with interesting cultural differences, the festival shows the universality of the ways we relate to family, love, sex, work, death, war, and other life issues. They also dispel any simplistic notions that one might have about “the Arab” or “the Muslim.”
To take just one example, “Taste of Cherry includes major characters who are Afghan refugees from the war there, who claim to be unaffected by the Iran-Iraq war, an Azeri from a Turkish family who resides in Iran, and an Iranian Kurd. Moreover, while the characters are undoubtedly shaped by their backgrounds and experiences, these top-notch films show them as complex individuals, whom one can relate to beyond cultural differences.
The festival is a great addition to the cultural scene on Cape Cod. If more people could participate, it could go a long way towards improving understanding of the diverse world we live in.
You could start with the physical: It has 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the world with elevations ranging from 66 meters to 8,848 meters above sea level. It is a biodiversity hotspot deriving from the multiple ecoregions–arctic to tropical, including mountains, hills, and savannas. There is a corresponding diversity of flora and fauna, with gorgeous butterflies and birds. There are many cultural groups and over 125 languages spoken. The architecture, the food, the music, the arts, the history, the religions, and more are fascinating. The traffic in Kathmandu is a story in itself.
However, I experienced something perhaps even more remarkable. I was fortunate to be included in a group of young Nepalis who hope to build a movement to make education in Nepal more progressive, specifically to make it more relevant to people’s lives, more connected to community, and more supportive of inquiry that leads to sustained learning and creativity.
The group has the tentative name of Progressive Educators of Nepal Network (PENN). We met last Tuesday for early morning breakfast at Hotel Vajra in Kathmandu.
Those present represented four organizations. Shisir Khanal and Swastika Shrestha came from Teach for Nepal. Like Teach for America and similar organizations, TFN engages university graduates and young professionals who are committed to reduce education inequality. They emphasize community-based education, teaching in rural, public schools. Fellows work for two years, typically living in a community and staying in a home there.
Umes Shrestha and Narottam Aryal came from King’s College, a new college whose objective is making world-class education available to Nepali youths at home at an affordable cost. King’s College seeks to make its teaching more relevant for students and more inquiry-based.
Karkhana, meaning “factory,” is a company emphasizing experimentation, collaboration, and play for both makers and teachers. It started as a Saturday morning hacker hang-out and evolved into an innovation focused company that combines education and design of new products. See for example, the recent Kathmandu Mini Maker Faire. Pauvita Gautram represented Karkhana and its inquiry-based learning approach.
Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) is a not-for-profit civic technology company. It has been mapping all the educational institutions, health facilities, road networks, tangled mesh of gallies, religious sites and other geographic features of Kathmandu Valley using OpenStreetMap. Secondary and college-level students participate through mapping workshops. Nama Budhathoki represented KLL and its effort to extend youth mapping work to education for full civic engagement. See KLL goal statement.
In November, this network of people, organizations, and interests will host a month long project to foster the development of educators who can become leaders in community–based education. I’ll lead initial workshops on progressive education, inquiry-based learning, and community inquiry. We’ll also travel to village sites to explore community-based education, then bring those experiences back to Kathmandu for a national meeting.
The work of this group can be important for Nepal, while also serving as a model for others. More to come on this exciting project.
All too often we hear simplistic statements about Islam, which tell us a little about the speaker, but nothing about Islam itself.
Candidates for President and mass media personalities say things like “We need to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods,” “Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S.,” “Immigration visas & refugees from countries with active terror networks must be halted,” “It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world [by dropping an atomic bomb],” “Islam hates us,” “The hate is in Islam itself,” and “Islam is in need of a Reformation.” These are typically said in the context of discussing terrorism, while Islam is widely ignored otherwise. Meanwhile, defenders talk about “true Islam” or define Islam is just another Abrahamic religion.
Setting aside the lack of evidence, the faulty reasoning, the many harms they cause, and the hurt they inflict, one thing stands out: The speakers and their audiences seem fully convinced that they know exactly what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim.
Despite their lack of interest in the topic at other times and the inability to read Arabic, they profess to prove points by quoting the Qur’an out of context. With minuscule knowledge of Islamic history, literature (even in translation), culture, or actual beliefs and practices, they are nevertheless eager to pronounce what Islam is and what should be done to fix it. Most remarkably, they are able to conflate anecdotes and faulty data across diverse cultures to come up with simplistic generalizations that they would be ashamed to apply to say, Christianity, Judaism, Western culture, or atheism.
A Muslim who studied deeply the history, literature, philosophy, and practices of Islam, Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015), provides a richly detailed account of Islam that should cause us to question statements such as those above. His account doesn’t yield counter generalizations; instead it shows how such sweeping statements obscure rather than illuminate. His new book, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2015) has been useful for both Muslims and non-Muslims. One implication is that to say that someone is a Muslim is little more informative than saying that they are a person.Ahmed was a postdoctoral associate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard. His personal history surely informed his international perspective. Born in Singapore to Pakistani parents, but raised in Malaysia, he was sent to a British boarding school. It was difficult for him being the only Muslim boy in the school, thousands of miles from home, but his skill as a spin bowler in cricket kept him going. Back in Malaysia he attained a law degree in Kuala Lumpur, then worked as a journalist in Pakistan, and then obtained degrees in Arabic Studies from American University, Cairo. After that, he attained a doctorate in Islamic Studies at Princeton and then a postdoc at Harvard. Last June he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. While still ill, he married his fiancée Nora Lessersohn but died shortly after on September 17, 2015. You can see more about Ahmed and his book in How has Islamic orthodoxy changed over time?, by Elias Muhanna.
Through analysis of literature, art, philosophy, history, and politics, Ahmed asks “What is Islam?” To answer this he starts with a set of six questions (see end of this post). It’s clear that understanding the questions is a prerequisite to having a meaningful discussion about Islam.Consider just one question: “Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?” Unlike most other religious art (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.), Islamic art is typically abstract, often based on mathematical patterns (see above left from Calat Alhamra, in Granada, Andalusia, Spain). It doesn’t appear to represent religious ideas, the way that say, stations of the Cross do for Christians or statues of the Buddha do for Buddhists. Ahmed uses this key difference to talk about the way that Islamic art has developed. This leads to a discussion of the relation of Islam to science and philosophy, which accounts for why Islamic mathematics, science, and technology could build upon and extend the Greco-Roman tradition during a time when Christian Europe remained largely in opposition to it.
Throughout the wide ranging, long, and complex book, Ahmed struggles with the six opening questions and others, but more broadly, the variety and contradictions of Islam. Can it be defined through scripture, laws, cultural practice, or other means? He asks whether we should speak of Islam or of islams. He shows the challenge of relating the religious, the cultural, and the political, when those relationships shift across linguistic and national boundaries, as well as historical periods.
Inventing a concept
I’m reminded of Unamuno’s lesson that to invent a concept is to take leave of reality. Ahmed helps to reveal and interpret that reality as he questions the concept of Islam itself. At the same time, he helps us to understand the coherence that many people feel when they say they are Muslim, despite all the complexities. He offers a new paradigm for understanding how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation, one that shows how and why they have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, polyvalence, and relativism. It also helps to show how practices such as figural art, music, and wine drinking are Islamic. Crucially, it explains the historical constitution of Islamic law and its relationship to ethics and political theory.
Ahmed’s discussion is detailed and complex, one that is difficult to summarize briefly. Consider his discussion of what Muslims think Islam is: “[They] are in agreement that there is such a thing as Islam, even if they disagree about what it is.” For example, many scholars point to the Five Pillars–one God (the shahādah), five daily prayers, fasting in Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and alms-giving–as definitive for Islam. But others point out that the last four pillars are hotly contested theologically, interpreted in diverse ways, and as often ignored as observed. One says that if the pillars are seen as defining, then there are more negligent Muslims than observant ones.
So, some argue that it’s just the first pillar–one God and Mohammad as the Messenger. But that just opens to further questions: What is God? What is his message? What does it mean to submit (Islam) to God?
Ahmed’s richly detailed discussion shows that whether we talk about historical developments, theological interpretations, or diverse daily practices, we’re on very thin ice if we claim that we have an analytical tool that clearly marks out who is a Muslim, in what way they are, and what that means. Among the many people who would answer “yes” to the question, “Are you a Muslim?” there are non-participating adherents, strictly observant followers (of diverse tenets), mystics, skeptics, atheists and fundamentalists, feminists and misogynists. Moreover, Ahmed argues that the cultures that have embraced Islam are probably more diverse than those of any other religion, including Christianity.
Another example, comes from Rumi, His Maṣnavī-yi ma’navī (Doublets of Meaning) is one of the most significant texts in Islamic history. In one passage he writes about how attaining ḥaqīqat (Real-Truth) nullifies the (Islamic) laws and the paths or rituals to follow. This is similar to Buddhism and some versions of Christianity, in which the rules, practices, norms, beliefs, rituals, and so on, are but means to an end in which they no longer matter.
Ahmed does not conclude from many examples such as this that Islam is too diffuse to have meaning. Instead, he does an amazing job of communicating how Islam can feel real and important to people, even as they admit to its protean character. He offers at least a starting point for making sense of the impact that Islam has on the lives of both followers and non-followers, one that is far more productive than the inane comments I listed above.
Ahmed’s six opening questions
- What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy?
- When Sufis assert that virtuoso “friends of God” are no longer bound by Islamic law and practice, is this an Islamic or an un-Islamic truth claim?
- Key ideas from Avicennan philosophy and Sufism “flirt incorrigibly with pantheism and relativism.” These have been among the “the most socially pervasive and consequential thought paradigms in the history of societies of Muslims,” Are these Islamic ideas?
- The Divan of Hafiz, the great 14th-century Persian poet, is “the most widely-copied, widely-circulated, widely-read, widely-memorized, widely-recited, widely-invoked, and widely-proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history.” It takes as its themes wine-drinking and (often homo-)erotic love, as well as a disparaging attitude to observant ritual piety.” Is that work and its ethos Islamic?
- Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?
- How can both the consumption of wine and its prohibition be essential to Islamic history and culture?
In my last post, I speculated that İstanbul was a good candidate for the center of the world.
But now, I’m sitting in İstanbul’s antithesis, the hamlet of Blanc sur Sanctus, France, wondering whether the center might instead be here. Where İstanbul is large and hyperactive, Blanc barely hangs on and wonders about its future.
Blanc sits above the valley of the river Sanctus, whose early traces form a boundary between departments of Aveyron and Tarn. It’s in the Langedoc region, where names still resonate in Occitan. It’s also in the Parc naturel régional des Grands Causses, a lush region of limestone plateaus, cascading mountain streams, beech and pine forests, and family-scale agriculture.
Blanc was settled at least a millennium ago. A chateau was built in the 10th C. The place changed over the years, growing and prospering, especially in the 17th C. But by the mid 19th C, there were only 54 inhabitants, and the last two left in 1960. The combination of a the general rural exodus and WWI were too much for it. Today, it and its environs are protected by an association, Sauvegarde du Rouergue, and by two men who operate a set of guesthouses on the site.
We’re staying in what used to be the school and post office. It’s restored to protect it and to provide modern conveniences, but with the perfect weather we had, we could have lived outdoors.
Some would say that Blanc represents well the past for France, and the world. Small-scale agriculture is uncompetitive and too difficult. People are drawn to the cities–the good jobs, shopping, culture and night life, automobiles, new technologies and modern conveniences. Wherever the center may be, it certainly can’t be in Blanc.
And yet, in Blanc you can take long walks through forests and meadows to reconnect with nature and your own body. You can drink pure water from mountain streams. You can feel how rocks were carried to form walls and houses, rather than to read about them or see them in a museum. You can understand how water and topography have always shaped human lives and continue to this day.
Moreover, you can see that the life in Blanc is not so different from that in similar places in Turkey, the US, China, or elsewhere in the world. Few people would choose to re-enter that rural lifestyle, but many people seek the kind of peace and wholeness that it promises. There’s a solidity to life here that is more than merely the fact everything seems to be built out of rock. Nearby, the “wild child” of Aveyron perplexed early 19th C villagers with his back to nature existence.
Blanc affords an opportunity to find one’s individual center in a way that the intensely social world of İstanbul does not.
The Milyon column in İstanbul (left) is one of many “centers of the world.” These centers seem to be everywhere, each signifying by its presence the yearning for a stable ground, but by their proliferation, undermining any notion of centeredness.
The column is all that’s left of a monument that was the starting point for measurement of distances for all the roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire. It lasted for over a thousand years, but disappeared at the start of the 16th C. During modern excavations, some partial fragments of it were discovered and erected again.
Today, the Milyon column stands near the Basilica cistern, another ancient monument, which was covered up, then rediscovered in the 16th C. The cistern is a huge underground room to hold water. It’s 453′ x 212′, which is larger than a World Cup field, if you’d like a topical comparison.
It was built in the 6th C during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. During his era, and for centuries to follow, the cistern held fresh water for the citizens of Constantinople and the Milyon dome resting on four pylons marked the center of their world. As you explore the cistern’s eerily lit walkways, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in some mystical center of the earth.
The cistern was unknown in the Western world until P. Gyllius discovered it while doing research on İstanbul’s Byzantine remains. He was surprised to see people getting water with buckets from well holes, some within their own homes, and even catching fish.
Some manage to calculate the geographic center as being the same location as the Geza pyramid, which would be a coincidence supporting many mystical accounts. But more commonly, it’s calculated as being in the eastern Mediterranean Sea about halfway between Athens and Alexandria. Other methods locate it in north-east Turkey.
In either case, I like the way that it’s not too far from İstanbul. That fabulous city straddles Europe and Asia, and through its ports and the Bosporos serves as a bridge to Africa. Its layers of civilization locate it between old and new, encompassing many religious traditions. If you had to choose one center, İstanbul and its Milyon column wouldn’t be a bad choice.