Courtyard life

Dhumbahal stupa, Patan

Dhumbahal stupa, Patan

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.

Objects

Family

Family across the way

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.

Tree blossoms for her hair

Tree blossoms for her hair

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.

Small mandir

Small mandir

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.

Activities

The mystery hole

The mystery hole

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.

Baby photos

Baby photos

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.

Preparing vegetables

Preparing vegetables

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.

The wedding party

The wedding party

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.

Installing the cell antenna

Installing the cell antenna

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.

Schedule

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.

Morning rituals

Morning rituals

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

The sign to turn into the courtyard

Lions signaling the turn into the courtyard

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.

What is Islam?

Arabesque decoration at the Alhambra

Arabesque decoration at the Alhambra

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.

Shahab Ahmed

Shahab Ahmed

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.

Shahab Ahmed

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's posthumous book

Ahmed’s posthumous book

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.

Reconceptualizing Islam

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.

Statue of Avicenna at the UN Office in Vienna

Statue of Avicenna at the UN Office in Vienna

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?

Personal questions

Lonely Planet publishes a good Turkish phrasebook, which has been handy in many situations. It provides some basic information about the language, the country, and the culture. I’d recommend carrying a copy, unless you’re fluent in Turkish.

But like any guidebook, the advice about social interactions is necessarily simplified, often essentializing differences. For example, the book advises:

Avoid asking questions about someone’s age, religion, or sexual preference, as the Turkish prefer not to discuss these topics openly. They love talking about politics, but exercise a little caution when expressing your opinion – some Turks verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.

Phrases such as “the Turkish” or “They” are red flags, which can never be universally valid. I accept the advice to avoid personal questions on a first meeting, but I’ve found that at least some of the “They” actually like to talk about these topics. I’ve been asked: How old are you? Where do you live? What religion are you? How tall are you? What do you think about Obama? What do you think of Turkey?

When in an eczane (drugstore), I took advantage of the free scale to weigh myself. A druggist peered at the scale to check my number and then gave his approval. That may have been professional monitoring, but I sensed simple curiosity at work as well.

I’m sure that some of the They “love talking about politics,” but we were cautioned not to bring up politics with two men, who despite being friends and colleagues, had radically different political views. On the other hand, in the US, I know many people who “verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.” Maybe they all have Turkish heritage.

The phrasebook also suggests,

When you meet someone of the opposite sex who has strong religious beliefs, avoid shaking hands or kissing them. Instead, greet them with the Arabic words selamin alekküm. (p. 105)

Again, broadly useful advice, but off in so many particulars. Turkish people we have met seem to vary widely in terms of talk and gestures. Some women initiate the double cheek kiss. Moreover, in a city, especially in university communities, there are people from all over the world with diverse habits. “The Turkish” vary a lot in terms of their international experiences and customs. And I haven’t heard selamin alekküm used in greetings.

One might also ask how to know whether someone has strong religious beliefs if that topic hasn’t come up. You can guess by clothing styles, but that’s far from infallible. I have a friend here who is deeply religious, but dresses in a modern style and drinks alcohol. Some women dress very conservatively, but for reasons of family or personal choice, not religion.

At another point, the phrasebook suggests,

When talking with people you’ve just met, or those you’re talking to in the polite siz (you) form, it’s considered rude to cross your arms or place your hands in your pockets. (p. 108)

This reminds me of a different guidebook that warns “the Chinese” do not like it when you point a finger at them. In my experience, most people sense that crossed arms, hands in pockets, pointing at people, and so on, are at best informal, and usually off-putting. I might just as well suggest to a Turk, “when meeting someone in the US for the first time, especially in a formal situation, don’t stand there with your arms crossed or point your finger at them. The American doesn’t like that.”

Living history in İstanbul

Kılıç Ali Paşa Külliyesi

Kılıç Ali Paşa Külliyesi

İstanbul is a city of contradictions––part Europe and part Asia, part ancient empire and part modern democracy, part bustling metropolis and part quiet byways. It’s hurtling toward the future with modern buildings, massive construction projects, and crushing traffic, but it’s also a city filled with its history, which is to a large extent the history of much of the world.

Today we saw some of the latter. We visited the Kılıç Ali Paşa complex, including a camii (mosque), a medrese (seminary), a hamam (bath), a türbe (tomb), and a çeşme (fountain). It’s in Tophane, which is part of the Beyoğlu district, on the shore of the Bosporus. It was built by Kılıç Ali Paşa, following the design of the great architect Mimar Sinan. Sinan was 90 when he began the project and 98 when he finished.

Kılıç Ali Paşa Camiii dome

Kılıç Ali Paşa Camiii dome

It’s beautiful inside and out. It shows one of Sinan’s specialities, a massive structure, which is surprisingly delicate and full of light. There are 247 windows including 24 for the central dome. Try the virtual tour.

One legend about the site is that when Kılıç Ali Paşa decided to endow a mosque, he applied for a grant of land. The Grand Vezier said: “Since he is the admiral, let him build his mosque on the sea.” Kılıç Ali Paşa brought in rocks and built the mosque on an artificial island connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. The complex is now well inland, since the sea was filled during the construction of a modern port.

Another legend is that Miguel de Cervantes was a forced worker at the construction of the complex during his enslavement, like the character in Don Quixote.

The Museum of Innocence, 83 cabinets, one for each chapter

The Museum of Innocence, 83 cabinets, one for each chapter

We also saw The Museum of Innocence. Orhan Pamuk created it, based on the museum in his novel of the same name. He calls it “a declaration of love to the city of İstanbul.”

Visiting the museum is like experiencing an alternate reality version of the book. You read or listen from the book as you view the exhibits, which are described in the book. The cabinets are numbered to correspond to the chapters, so it’s a museum about a book, a book about a museum, and a multimedia creation about life in İstanbul. The cleverness of it all is fun and doesn’t get in the way (though almost) of Pamuk’s thoughtful, melancholic writing.

Tarihi Cumhuriyet Meyhanesi

Tarihi Cumhuriyet Meyhanesi

Tonight we had dinner at Tarihi Cumhuriyet Meyhanesi, where Atatürk used to eat. It feels like eating in a restaurant from the 1920’s. The walls are covered with photos and news articles from its 150 year existence.

Lizards of Labranda

We had another glorious ancient site to ourselves on Sunday. Labra(u)nda (Λάβρανδα) is just north of Milas in SW Turkey.

Admittedly, there is some competition, with Ephesus, Pergamon, Priene, Bodrum Castle, Troy, and numerous other sites less than a day away. Nevertheless, it felt like a guilty pleasure to be able to explore such a fabulous site alone, to drink from the sacred spring, and imagine both the ancient civilization there and the excitement of the first archaeologists to investigate it

Labranda was held sacred by the Carian and Mysian peoples. Mausolus of Mausoleum fame, was a satrap here (c. 377-352 BCE). The local god was Zeus Labraundos (Ζεὺς Λάβρανδος), with a double-headed axe, the labrys (also as in lanyrinth). The site was occupied continously until the mid-Byzantine period.

I have to admit that we weren’t completely alone. There were wild cats, chickens, honeybees from the nearby honey farms, and many fine lizards.

Islamic community center in New York

Based on the evidence, this post seems unnecessary and even risks treating bigotry with more respect than it deserves. But based on rhetoric in the mass media and polling numbers the post seems overdue.

The Cordoba Initiative is building an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, called Cordoba House. The center will include a mosque, an auditorium, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a bookstore. It’s based on the model of Jewish community centers and Y’s in Manhattan; the board will include Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. The center is “dedicated to pluralism, service, arts and culture, education and empowerment, appreciation for our city and a deep respect for our planet” and to serve as a model of moderate Islam.

Located near (but not at) Ground Zero, Cordoba House replaces a building damaged in the September 11 attacks. Announcement of the plans led to a brouhaha, what Anthony DiMaggio calls a “manufactured controversy.” Although there is both support and opposition among every group (9/11 survivors and families, people in Lower Manhattan, Christians, Muslims, etc.), the majority view is opposed. Some people go so far as to argue in effect for an abandonment of the First Amendment, for the government to establish which religions should be allowed to practice where, not to mention an extraordinary abridgment of private property rights.

But as Todd Gitlin writes, it is not the duty of American governments “to construct a mosque-free zone around the World Trade Center site because some Americans oppose putting it there.” To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg gave unambiguous support to the idea that the fact of terrorism should not be allowed to destroy American values or Constitutional rights.

Referring to the firefighters and police officers who entered the trade center on September 11, Bloomberg said, “In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, ‘What God do you pray to?’ ‘What beliefs do you hold?’” Further, “We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights—and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

Bloomberg based his actions on general principles of religious freedom and against bigotry. But having lived for many years in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., I can’t help noting that his parents had to hide their identity when they wanted to buy a house in Medford. Joyce Purnick says in her biography:

“My uncle wouldn’t dare sell to a Jew,” says a childhood friend of Mike, Thomas Buckley, about his relative, the realtor who sold the stone-and-clapboard houses in the newly built community that attracted the Bloombergs. “If he did, he would have been out of business. He knew they were buying it. He just didn’t say anything.”

No Jews lived in the immediate neighborhood, very few anywhere in Medford. But everyone assumed that would change, including the Bloombergs, who resolved not to let residual anti-Semitism block their path. “They weren’t very happy,” Mrs. Bloomberg said of some neighbors. “Our lawyer, George McLaughlin, who was Irish, bought the house and sold it to us.

Bloomberg managed to survive Medford and later endowed his hometown synagogue, Temple Shalom. It was renamed for his parents as the William and Charlotte Bloomberg Jewish Community Center of Medford.

After 9/11, many people asked Muslims to condemn the trade center attacks, fanaticism, terrorism, and Osama Bib Laden. They also demanded that Muslims reach out to mainstream America. That’s exactly what the Cordoba Initiative is doing. But even if they weren’t doing that, our Constitution as well as basic human decency call on us to respect the rights of all, even those we misunderstand.

References

Barbaro, Michael, (2010, August 12). Mayor’s stance on Muslim center has deep roots. The New York Times.

Clawson, Julie (2010, June 8). Forgiveness, Fear, and the Mosque at Ground Zero. Sojourners.

DiMaggio, Anthony (2010, August 12). The Muslim community center at Ground Zero: A manufactured controversy. counterpunch.

Gitlin, Todd (2010, August 13). American values and the Ground Zero mosque. The New Republic.

Purnick, Joyce (2009). Mike Bloomberg: Money, politics, power. PublicAffairs, Perseus Books Group.

Salisbury, Stephan (2010, August 10). Mosque mania. Mother Jones.

Evangelicals attack Voudo practitioners in Haiti

As if people in Haiti haven’t faced enough problems already, Christians, many from outside Haiti, have begun attacking people there who are simply praying or singing.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Angry crowds in a seaside slum attacked a group of Voodoo practitioners Tuesday, pelting them with rocks and halting a ceremony meant to honour victims of last month’s deadly earthquake.

Voodooists gathered in Cite Soleil where thousands of quake survivors live in tents and depend on food aid. Praying and singing, the group was trying to conjure spirits to guide lost souls when a crowd of Evangelicals started shouting. Some threw rocks while others urinated on Voodoo symbols. When police left, the crowd destroyed the altars and Voodoo offerings of food and rum.

Some groups use an interesting method to convince Haitians to abandon their beliefs. Quoted in the same article, Pastor Frank Amedia of Miami-based Touch Heaven Ministries says:

“We would give food to the needy in the short term but if they refused to give up Voodoo, I’m not sure we would continue to support them in the long term because we wouldn’t want to perpetuate that practice. We equate it with witchcraft, which is contrary to the Gospel.”

Does this mean that pelting worshipers with rocks, urinating on their sacred symbols, and withholding food from hungry people is the modern Christian way? Aren’t those acts themselves “contrary to the Gospel”? Why do outsiders, in this case mostly Americans, think that violence is the path to rebuilding a nation? When will we learn that acting responsibly in the world doesn’t mean insisting that we are always right and that our way is the only way?

See the photo in the Associated Press report at Voodooists attacked at ceremony for Haiti victims.