Monday, December 08, 2008

Defeated, dethroned, and now, defaced

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was Iran's monarch from 1941 to1979. He ruled the country for 37 years, and was unceremoniously removed from power in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini and his many millions of followers. He died in 1980. Today his wife, Farah Pahlavi, divides her time between the West and Egypt.

A lavish photo book extolling the glories of Iran's present and past, called Persia: Bridge of Turquoise, was produced during the king's reign. The photography was by Roloff Beny, and it included an essay by the renowned Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The forward was written by Farah Pahlavi.

The book contains a few images of the king and his wife, both of whom look eminently regal in appearance. When I was browsing through a copy of this book a few days ago in the Morrison Library at UC Berkeley, I was momentarily stunned and slightly bemused to find an X a previous reader had drawn using a red ball point pen on one of the pictures. It was scribbled directly on the face of the former king. Someone had literally defaced the king.

The vandalism of a library book is a librarian's nightmare, of course. Damage done to any book is often permanent, and can be disastrous when the book is impossible to replace. UC Berkeley's library is one of the finest in the United States. It provides an outstanding environment for scholarly research. One simply doesn't expect to find random acts of permanent political protest within the pages of its library books, even at a campus with a progressive reputation like Berkeley. In such an august environment, is such an act by a reader a stirring rebellion in favor of humanity's dignity and justice, or merely the uncouth work of a hasty barbarian?

What was the vandal thinking? Was it spontaneous? Maybe seeing a few images of regal splendor was more than the vandal could handle, and the defenseless book was the object of their frustration. I imagined a face, angry at first, eyes ablaze, a red pen held aloft ready to strike, but then softening to reflect a warm, satisfied glow. Or perhaps it was a measured act, plotted after a night of determined reflection. My mind formed the image of a student tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep, with angry thoughts coursing through his tender mind. Perhaps his uncle had been tortured and killed by the king's intelligence services, and he was taking revenge. Perhaps he hated the outlandish wealth of the king, while the ordinary people suffered.

I became fascinated with the defaced image. It represented something for me, but what was it exactly? There are many oppressive forces that bear down on us. We may feel like we have little control over our destiny. We might well be aware that many of our leaders are selfish and perhaps even overtly corrupt, like the former king of Iran was, but we probably feel we have little power to change the situation. Defacing an image might be one way for someone to feel like they're doing something productive.

The king was a handsome man. His wife was undoubtedly beautiful. Iranians often place a premium on looks. They can afford to. They're an attractive and refined people. An Iranian American was recently telling me of his displeasure at what he considers the rampant materialism and all around shallowness found within much of his community in southern California. Yet the red X disregarded all of that decadent aesthetic pleasure. It said “I don't care how handsome and beautiful you are, you're still a dastardly scoundrel.”

Perhaps the fact that I am a photographer myself makes me sensitive to these issues. I'm often intrigued when there is a collision between ideals and ideology, or beauty and ugliness. Images I've published on the Internet are often used for political or artistic purposes by individuals and organizations. Sometimes people ask me for permission, and they occasionally even pay me for the privilege. At other times they use an image without bothering to contact me. Sometimes they respect the dignity of the people in the images, sometimes not.

All in all, the vandal got me thinking. I don't like how they did it, but I have to admit they left their mark on more than just the book.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"Making a go of things" vs. "bouncing around"

The extent to which a few years of difference in age can influence perceptions of what people really ought to be doing in life is remarkable. Things which are seen as wise in one period of life can be seen as irresponsible if done a little later. The change over from one period to the next can be rapid. Having a changeable vs. stable career is like this. Doing a mix of jobs and being living an itinerant life in one's twenties and early thirties is often perceived positively by other young people and their elders. It indicates a willingness to experiment and to be open to new experiences. For the young adult, it promises adventure and self-discovery. However there comes a point where doing the same things while being more advanced in years has a cost. Not only do the advantages of a stable life seem more compelling for the individual themselves, but other people's perceptions can quickly change. No longer is the person making a go of things. Instead, they are merely bouncing around from one thing to the next. They are not making the most of the experience they have accumulated in life. Instead, they are frittering away their life without a clear sense of direction and purpose. What they need is a plan that leads them to a path of robust stability.

When I graduated from my undergraduate studies as a fresh faced 21 year old youth, I could have continued straight on into a program of graduate study, culminating in a Ph.D. This would have set me up for a long career in the academic world. Life as an academic is a viable and very attractive option for me. I enjoy academic life immensely, and while there are gazillions of things in this life for which I truly have no talent for, the kinds of skills I have do find useful expression in a university. The fields of study I am most passionate about relate to people and their culture, particularly as they relate to religion, peace and conflict. As a young adult, I did not believe I had the necessary experience to make the most effective use of all that graduate studies can offer. Instead, I wanted more experience with life outside the university. I chose to work with civil society organizations (also known as non government organizations), eventually securing work in the Philippines in the fields of biodiversity conservation, sustainable development policy advocacy, and later agrarian reform. I later spent time in other countries, working, meeting people and experiencing cultures very different to the one in which I was raised. During this time, I have not had a single job that I've worked at for more than two and half years. What I have had is the experience of working with a huge variety of people in a bunch of different contexts.

Philippines, 1999

In the last few years, I have begun to get comments from concerned friends that I ought to focus my energies on a clearer path in life than what I've been leading. I still get the odd comment from people who do have stable careers that they deeply admire the variety in my life, and that they wish they had the same experience for themselves. But the former is slowly becoming more common than the latter.

The truth is, I also long for some stability. I've not had a proper home for myself in more than four years. Living out of a suitcase does mean adventure and experience, but it has lots of downsides too. I anticipate that my notably itinerant lifestyle of the past few years will come to an end next year, when I hope to start a Ph.D program in anthropology. After my Ph.D, I plan to pursue an academic career in which I can bring my life experiences into the classroom and my research. Some focus will do me good, and allow me to make a more in-depth contribution than I otherwise would. That's the theory, at least. Now is the time for it's application.

California, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's my birthday

It's my birthday

I was born in Wellington hospital in New Zealand at 3 o'clock in the morning on December 1. My mother is no longer alive and in losing her it feels like I lost my connection to the source of life. But as this photo shows, I am standing on the land. I am by the sea, which is where life emerged from many millions of years ago. Mother Earth is our mother.

Who is the mother of our planet? A million suns are ablaze with light, and the sea of blue is spread in the sky, says Kabir. We stand and look to the stars, our world turning, their ancient light reaching into our depths.

Rains pour down without water, and the rivers are streams of light, Kabir adds. In the very depths of our consciousness, we find the source of life. We open our eyes, and we see it everywhere.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A southern wedding

Before last Saturday, the previous three weddings I'd attended were in Pakistan and India. You know the setup. Weddings that go on for days. Dancing that goes on late into the night. Gold jewelery and glittering precious stones practically lighting up the room. Women wearing more makeup than a corpse. Hordes of cousins and aunts and uncles and family friends and children dressed up in little suits. The bride and groom sitting patiently on a stage having their photo taken with never ending waves of relatives.

A tiny fraction of the diamond and gold jewelery worn at an Indian wedding earlier this year

I'd never been to a wedding in the Southern U.S. before. When I found out that my peace studies classmates Jonathan and Diana were having a part of their wedding celebration in Atlanta, Georgia, I welcomed the chance to attend. Since Jonathan is from Atlanta, and Diana is from England, their marriage is a mixed marriage -- one of those where people think a little differently from each other beyond what color to paint the bedroom. The weddings in South Asia had been among identical couples -- the same religion, ethnicity, nationality, and socioeconomic class. Only the gender was different. Di and Jonathan are both Christians, and their education is naturally as close to the same as you're ever going to find, but here Di was marrying someone in whose church people speak in tongues. That's just not done in England.

Di and Jonathan exchanging vows in Jonathan's church

The service was held in Jonathan's church. Near the church entry, scenes from their wedding proper in Oxford played on a couple of monitors. The back wall was dominated by a large sign that said "SEEING THE UNSEEN" and an American flag. People sang songs about Jesus their savior. The atmosphere was relaxed, caring and inclusive. Anyone who wanted to could participate during the prayers for the couple. Jesus's name was proclaimed loudly and regularly. The very high esteem felt by Jonathan's community for him marked every prayer. None of this was surprising. What was surprising -- shocking almost -- was when one of Di's family friends, a tall silver bearded Englishman in his fifties, spoke of Jesus and the couple so enthusiastically that he ended up shouting loudly into the microphone. He out evangelized the evangelicals on their own patch. I never thought I'd live to see that.

A light hearted moment during prayers

Another peace studies classmate of ours, Elizabeth, had already married her sweetheart, Dylan. Dylan is from rural Kentucky. Elizabeth is Mexican, and proud of her indigenous heritage. They both attended the wedding. Dylan was wearing a sweater from the University of Notre Dame. On it the coat of arms of Sorin College was proudly displayed. A local asked him if he was one of the English guests.

Elizabeth and Dylan. Their marriage was in Mexico City. Elizabeth is Mexican and Dylan is from Kentucky.

Dylan and I had a chat about mules. Mules are what happens when a male donkey and a female horse have a good time together. They're prized for having the best characteristics of both animals. The Wikipedia entry for a mule observes it "possesses the sobriety, patience, endurance and sure-footedness of the donkey, and the vigour, strength and courage of the horse." They make wonderful working animals. I confess that I might be one of the few people on Earth ever to have contemplated the mule as a metaphor for the benefits of mixed marriages. But it's true. I did for a while.

There's only one problem with mules: unlike a horse, who mostly kicks backwards and occasionally forwards, a mule can kick in all directions. Another characteristic of mules is that they're almost always sterile. That's not so much a problem for the farmer -- they can always breed some more. But it can be problem for the mule. They can feel the desire to get laid but lack the reproductive equipment needed to act on it. Dylan told me a story from rural Kentucky some forty years ago. A female horse was in a field beside a male mule. The horse was in heat. The owner of the mule didn't stand a chance. This mule did more than just kick. By the time his body was found, the mule had taken out his rampant sexual frustration by using his powerful jaws to almost sever both of the unfortunate farmer's arms from his body.

I know what tragedy is. That's when you get a kick in the guts, get up after a while, only to get another one before you've had a chance to fully recover, and so on. Repeat until death. But I've never seen anything try to chew a person's arms off. That's a new one.

So much for the mule as a metaphor for countless the blessings of mixed marriages. Still, there must be a metaphor in there somewhere, right? After all, there is the "elephant in the room". Everyone knows that. Perhaps there could also be "the frisky mule in the field". Hmm. That probably won't work either.

Performing a religious song in front of an American flag

It often seems to me like a good mixed marriage is a miracle of sorts. The miracle is not that they work. Cultural differences pose no insurmountable barrier when the love is true. The miracle is that they work in spite of the skeptics and naysayers who sometimes make it their eternal mission to sow the seeds of doubt and division. In these two peace studies marriages, even if such thinking did exist somewhere, it wouldn't have stood a chance, given the loving support the couples received.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Interview with Rabbi David Rosen

Rabbi David Rosen is one of the world's leading figures in inter-religious relations.

This interview was conducted in his office in Jerusalem on January 8, 2006. Nothing has been left out.

Rabbi David Rosen giving a speech at an Arab university on January 4, 2006
Rabbi David Rosen giving a speech at an Arab university on January 4, 2006

Damon Lynch: Very briefly, I am interested in something called the spiritual imagination. I see my interest in this as being related to character, conduct and consciousness in people, and how they connect their inner life—their spiritual life—to the action they take in the world. I am particularly interested in how they see the use of love, power and knowledge. My feeling is that a lot of religious people talk about love without incorporating necessarily the component of power. There is the Quaker phrase, “speak the truth to power.” I think we can have power as well, and use it responsibly. I am very interested in developing a counterpart to C. Wright Mills’ sociological imagination, but with a more inner dimension. And I am interested in how people understand the development of their inner selves, their inner life, with the action that they take, particularly peacebuilding. So I wanted to know what kind of ideas you might have in this area.

Rabbi David Rosen: Well I do not know I have any particular significant ideas. What you say sounds extremely right—that these individuals do have what you call a spiritual imagination and are integrated in their approach towards both the more moral and ethical-spiritual dimensions. Then their ability to be able to contribute to reconciliation and mutual respect is all the more powerful. I agree with you that the ideal would be where these elements are of both one’s relationship to the institutional structures that determine people’s life—political structures, the structures of authority—should be the goal of those who are animated and motivated by the moral, emotional and spiritual aspects of their own conviction. But the reality, certainly in this part of the world, is that that tends to happen too rarely, that those who are related to the structures of the power are anyway here very much subject to political authority. Also the vast majority here, because we are in a context of conflict living in degrees of greater or lesser fear and suspicion, which therefore limit the full expression of their spiritual imagination. Those who are more spiritually developed tend therefore not to be part of the institutional structures and tend to be more involved in grassroots activities, and there tends to be a dislocation between the two. And therefore, if I may be so immodest, those few of us who do seek that kind of integration have a responsibility to try to be able to egg on those in institutional positions in order to be more responsive to the challenges. I think we need to be modest as to what extent we can actually open up their minds and hearts.

Lynch: It strikes me that most people when it comes down to it would rather be a blessing instead of a curse on the rest of life.

Rosen: Well it is absolutely true, but nevertheless it is like the famous—this is an over exaggeration—it is like the Mel Brooks takeoff of Hitler where he says “all I want is peace, I want a little piece of Poland, and a little piece of this.” So everybody here wants peace and everyone here wants to be a blessing, but they always wanted peace on their own terms. Generally speaking, because of their own insularity, and because of their fears, they see the responsibility with the Other and see themselves as virtuous and self-righteous.

Lynch: I have noticed that when I have asked people how they connect their inner life to their outer actions, people struggle to articulate this. Maybe I am asking the wrong questions.

Rosen: No, I think it is very true because most people do not think of their inner life. I suppose it depends where. I think in the Western world, that is not so true. In the Western world we have had to look more critically at what our what our religious and spiritual convictions and therefore can talk of them in terms of our inner life. But I would say that is relatively new. Well, it has always been of course the language of the mystics. But, in terms of institutional authority, maybe there are two things. Maybe in a way, power and authority tend to stifle the degree to which people devote themselves more to their own inner life. If you look through history, I suppose, generally speaking, those of the more mystical orientation have been those who have eschewed power and authority. And those who have been in authority, therefore have been by almost definition rather one-dimensional types. In our part of the world to the large degree that is still the case. Then there is another factor, and that is to be able to answer your question properly requires a degree of self-critique. It requires a capacity of introspection, which tends to come with a capacity of self-critique. That requires a degree of confidence and I would say that the vast majority of people here do not have that self-confidence to be able to look critically at themselves or at their tradition. So there are a number of different factors that need to be there to facilitate that integration. Of course there have always been remarkable individuals who have risen above such limitations, but they have been exceptions and therefore almost by definition not impacted enormously upon the overall context. So I think if you going to say to what extent does your prayer and your meditation and of course you religious study impact upon your life, all leaders would say “of course it impacts upon my life, it directs my life.” But nevertheless, they have not really looked at themselves within a more self-critical perspective to enquire more profoundly as to what relationships are between the inner and the external. The difficulty that people have comes to some extent from the circumstances in which they live, and of course it could come from the fact that maybe they do not have a significantly developed inner spiritual life!

Lynch: One example I am intrigued by is the example of Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the North West Frontier Province of what is today Pakistan. With his Servants of God, they took on British imperialism with nonviolence. His people were, to put it bluntly, a smashed, divided, very weak people. One of the arguments he put to his people was that “if we Pukhtuns fight the British violence with nonviolence and we are patient, we will show the whole world who are the civilized people here”, obviously putting the challenge to the British to critique their own concepts of civilization. He used a number of religious and nonreligious arguments to convince his followers to stick steadfastly to nonviolence. But I very much like one in particular: the idea of taking the culture’s strengths and using them to overcome its weaknesses. A particular strength of the Pukhtuns was their honor. Khan used it to get his followers to overcome a serious weakness, which was the idea that they were brutes, uncivilized and uncouth (which had some truth to it as well). Sheikh Aziz Bukhari mentioned to me yesterday this idea that if you are standing at a checkpoint and the soldiers are not being nice, he does not want to give them the satisfaction of seeing him respond with anger—sometimes they provoke people to do that. He said he instead smiles. I see that as a similar kind of a concept, but in a smaller way, of taking a bad situation and turning it into a good one. I am beginning to think that this seems to be a core idea of being able to imagine something very different from what it is now—of taking what you have now, and transforming it into something good.

Rosen: I would say two things. First of all, what you are describing with regards to the Pukhtun ways of course was Gandhi’s own approach towards the British as well. A number of scholars have observed that he was very lucky that he was preaching this idea of nonviolence, a culture of nonviolent resistance, to the British. Had he been advocating that let’s say to Nazi Germany, then that would have been the end of India, and it would have been wiped out entirely. In order to be able to have preached that kind of approach, you have to have an antagonist on the other side who can be responsive to it. Otherwise, as a principal I think it is a fallacy with regards to those who cannot appreciate the value of what you are standing for. Therefore I think we have to be very cautious about generalisations in that regard. With regards to Sheikh Abdul Aziz I think it is very important in any situation, if we are able to, to be compassionate. I remember reading a story of somebody during the period of the Holocaust. He was a rabbi, and he was being beaten by the Nazis. He was being tortured, and he was feeling a great deal of pain. He was filled with an initial sense of great hatred towards the people who were torturing him. He said, “I had to remind myself that these are also creatures created in the image of God. Once I remembered that, I could bear all the torture that they had to throw at me.” So obviously the power of both affirming the dignity of the Other and compassion towards the Other is an enormous resource and reservoir that enables us to withstand enormous adversity. However in certain situations, smiling at somebody can actually do the reverse. I remember another Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a shrewish wife and he was very henpecked. She used to say all sorts of nasty things to him, even in the presence of his Hasidim, his followers. He never answered them back. He always kept his quiet, because he was a very saintly man. On one occasion he replied to her sharply and she was quiet and went back to wherever she had come from. The people said to him “Well rabbi, you have never ever replied to your wife. Why did you do that like this? ” He said “because I could see that being quiet and not responding to her was causing more anguish than if I responded.”

Lynch: I remember Sri Ramakrishna used to say to his followers that some people should be saluted from a distance. I very much like that image. As an aside, what you make of the arguments of some that the challenge of the German women to get the Jewish husbands back outside the Reichstag in Berlin—I forget which year it was, 1941, 42, 43—paralysed Hitler’s so-called iron will? What do you make of this account that the German women undertook nonviolent direct action? [Editor’s note: read a detailed account of the event here. The location was Rosenstrasse, not the Reichstag]

Rosen: I do not know. I do not know the story, but I would be very surprised. I cannot see any reason why Hitler would have behaved like that.

Lynch: I wish I had memorised it better, but in short, the German women with their Jewish husband’s, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, were taken and imprisoned. Some were already on the way to the gas chambers. The German women for two or three days conducted nonviolent resistance, right outside the headquarters of something important like the SS, a very symbolic place anyway. Hitler knew what was going on. He could not just shoot them.

Rosen: Why?

Lynch: Perhaps because they were German.

Rosen: He shot plenty of other Germans. He did not have any problem with homosexuals. In fact, I would say the vast majority of those who continued to be married were publicly humiliated. If anybody was caught walking with a Jewish partner they were generally publicly humiliated in the streets. It is very difficult to believe that Hitler felt a little more compassion than his SS guards who were behaving like that the streets.

Lynch: Well apparently in this case not only did the men come back—not only were they saved that day—but they were not picked off one by one as the war progressed, as we might have assumed. Apparently they lived.

Rosen: This is totally inconsistent with almost everything else that happened under Nazi Germany—there must be some other factor at play.

Lynch: I share your concern about the smile and be happy approach all the time. I think it has its time in its place. Sometimes, a word said sharply can be very useful.

Rosen: I think actually what is much more effective is the model that Marshall Rosenberg has developed, which basically comes out of Carl Rogers, and that is the language of empathy—being able to understand somebody’s needs and wants and their feelings at any given moment. Therefore, if you are able to say to somebody something along the lines of “I realise that this is really tough for you and it is really dangerous and there are some really nasty people around who want to do harm, and you had to protect it, etc”. You show compassion to them. Then you say, “I would like you also to understand how I am feeling in this regard” than express your own particular feelings, values and needs. As long as you have shown compassion from the beginning, you are likely to get a lot through. But you have got to be able to connect to the person’s feelings and needs.

Lynch: In your own tradition, what are some ways that you teach others to develop empathy for those who they truly believe are inferior to themselves?

Rosen: In my own tradition, from my point of view, the most important principle is to teach them that there is nobody who is inferior to them, because everybody is created in the divine image, and therefore everybody is of inestimable worth, and every life in all their dignity is therefore of inalienable value. That is not taught well enough. The problem is that when you get to the situation of conflict there is a need to demonise. Therefore you look to sources that therefore can reinforce the dehumanisation of the other. But in my opinion they all fundamentally contradict the most central principle that everybody is created in the divine image. Of course we all have problems with our texts because in every text, whether it is the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, or the Koran, we find areas of where clearly there violent things that are endorsed in one way or another under certain circumstances. Therefore if you are dealing with a person of a more liberal orientation, you can look at them and you can say what are the more central principles for the more contextual issues, and therefore what we have to be guided for. But when you are dealing with people who are basically fundamentalists—this word fundamentalist of course, Scott Appleby in particular would understand is a rather dangerous word because it can have so many different meanings. But if we said let us use the term to say we are dealing with people who are uncritical with regards to their text in their tradition, then it is very much easier for them to be able to draw on more problematic texts as much as to be able to draw on the more positive texts. I would therefore obviously seek to reinforce as much as possible additional texts. The most famous rabbinic text is a discussion between Rabbi Akiba and Ben Azzai on what the most important principle is in the Bible. I would say to them “look, there is no way it says the most important principle is a question of protection of property or protection of land. The most important principle that they discuss is that Akiba says ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ And Ben Azzai says the more important principle is that every human being is created in the divine image, so you do not say because I was despised so let my neighbour be despised, because I was cursed, so let my neighbour be cursed. In other words his concern is that Akiba will make ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ to mean ‘love your neighbour as you yourself were loved or not loved’, and therefore his emphasis is that it does not matter how you have been treated, you have to be able to always remember that you have to treat an individual as a child of God and a person created in the divine image. And then comes the punchline of Rabbi Tanchuma who says that if you do so (in other words if you say because I was cursed so let my neighbour be cursed, or because I was despised so let my neighbour be despised) know who it is who you despise, because in the image of God he made man.” In other words, any act of disrespect to another human being is an act of disrespect to God. So if you could communicate that effectively to people that in fact behaving badly towards other people is behaving badly towards God, then even in your more uncritical—or using the term unscientifically, fundamentalist elements—you may succeed better in getting it across. However I get back to what I said before. All these arguments utilising Jewish sources are only going to be feasible if people do not feel threatened and if they do not feel fearful. Therefore to overcome their sense of threat and fear, you have to be able to give them empathy. To give them empathy means that you need to be able to show them that you are connecting to their needs and their feelings.

Lynch: In a moment, I want to come back to this disconnect between the power structures and the religious life. I share your caution about being arrogant about this kind of thing, but let us suppose for a moment the more highly developed spirituality of some people. But as an aside, in Hinduism of course one of the ancient discoveries was that the Atman is the same as Brahman, or the inner infinite Self is the Godhead. Is this compatible with the idea that we are all created in the image of God?

Rosen: I would say yes obviously, and it would be more within the mystical tradition that would see us meaning “all created in the image of God” as all part of God and that we die we are as it were returned to the Godhead. Therefore it is all part of the mystical idea especially developed by the Hasidic movement, that God is in everywhere and everything. This was not always the perception, in which often the sacred was divorced from the non-sacred. There is within the mystical tradition a view that there is sanctity in everything everywhere. And that idea I would certainly identify with, even though I would not buy into all necessarily the cosmology that comes with certain parts of Jewish mystical tradition, specifically within Kabbalah. That is part of the reason also why I am a vegetarian, because I believe that in different degrees there is sanctity in everything. One can never be absolutely reverential of all sanctity to every single degree—one has to find a balance somewhere. But the more one is conscious of the divine in everything, the more one is able to both ennoble oneself and one’s society. Again, there is a danger of course, especially with regard to vegetarians—there are plenty of people who care more about animals than they do about human beings. It has always got to be done with a certain telos, a certain teleology in mind. Those who accuse people of speciesism are actually being immoral. If you put all sentient beings on the same level then you are going to be at some stage inadequately sensitive to the needs of human beings. This is not a new idea. This is in the writing of one of the great Jewish philosophers, Joseph Albo, a mediaeval philosopher. Therefore for me ethical vegetarianism actually is in its most potent and valuable when it takes place with an understanding of a hierarchy of life in which human life is more sacred than animal life. In my opinion that is where vegetarianism is its most ethical. Where it is seen that all sentient life is of the same order, then it is dangerous, because then you can lose the necessary sensitivity towards human life.

Lynch: Yes I think I agree. I am also a vegetarian. Coming back to this disconnect between the power structures and the spiritual life of people, you must have given some thought about how to make that disconnect a little less disconnected, and to build some bridges between these two worlds.

Rosen: It is not a matter of just thought—it is a matter of what I do in my life. It is really what I do. In order to do that, I have to be able to speak many languages. Even as I am speaking English or Hebrew in the course of the day, I have to speak many languages because I have to connect to people where they are at. Very central to my work is a belief in the power of the human encounter. I agree with you that most people want to be a blessing. From this point of view, this is a big difference between Judaism and Christianity, of not seeing the human being as essentially flawed. From a Jewish perspective, if anything, we are born with original virtue. It is only social factors that can corrupt us and lead us astray, or these fears that I spoke about before. The more that we can therefore bring people to overcome those fears and those suspicions and overcome those stereotypes and prejudicial preconceived perceptions, the more we can enable their inner spiritual life to be expressed in the way they relate to others and in the issues and initiatives that they able to contribute to and come to. I see myself very much as a mediator in that. Certain things for example, like bringing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel out of its cocoon, have been facilitated by external factors, not least of all the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel in the year 2000, which developed the opening for the Committee of the Chief Rabbinate for Dialogue with the Vatican. For those involved it is significant, and even for those not involved it begins to lead them to start questioning as to whether their narrow perceptions are fair. We had another moment at a discussion on interfaith relations at - a conference of Orthodox Jewish leadership that has just concluded. Most Orthodox rabbis unfortunately, and I say this as an Orthodox rabbi, tend to be rather insular. This once again reflects their fear and lack of comfort with the world outside. On discussion of interfaith, of course I was very passionate about its importance. One of the reservations expressed by one of the rabbis, is the fear that this would therefore lead to intermarriage and undermine the integrity and therefore the continuity of Jewish identity and of the Jewish peoplehood. I give that as an example of the kinds of fears that one has to be able to contend with. You need to be able to argue with them constructively, both by giving them empathy for what their fears are, of being able to suggest to them that there is actually more to gain than to lose, and to be able to introduce them to the opportunity. You cannot always do it. In many cases it is not possible. One just has to keep on trying as much as one can.

Lynch: The initiative that you are involved with, with rabbis and imams, this world council, is this involving rabbis who represent a broad spectrum of rabbinic thought in Israel?

Rosen: In Israel, yes. There are all kinds of internecine problems, similar to the problems that you will not be able to get major Sunnis if you have Shi’ites there, or if you have Sufis there, and certainly not if you have Baha’is there. Unfortunately most of my Orthodox colleagues, unfortunately—while they are certainly open to meeting Muslims and to a lesser degree meeting Christians—the ones they fear most are other kinds of rabbis from the liberal strands of Judaism. Basically in their eyes they see those as heresies. They see them as more threatening heresies because they threaten to undermine their own power base. One of the things we have to decide with regards to the imams and rabbis is who are our target groups. If your group encompasses the total spectrum, then you will not get the spectrum, because by having the presence of one you cannot have the presence of the other. Our need was to get to the most intensely rooted—and in a way you might even say insular elements, within both communities. In Brussels at the first conference the spectrum of Israeli Jewish orthodoxy was amazing. We had an amazing spectrum of rabbinic representation. Many of those had never met a member of another religion ever before, let alone a religious leader. It was a very important opening for them. I would say it was the same in many senses for Muslims as well. In order to be able to get that spectrum of Orthodoxy it meant we had to have only a sprinkling of non-Orthodox rabbis, and then almost under wraps in order to get the more fervently Orthodox elements to participate.

If you are involved in trying to take spiritual values which are animated by one’s own personal inner spirituality and moral convictions—and to bring these to an area where people, because of their fears, misunderstandings and insecurities are less able to give full expression to this inner life—then you have to work out all kinds of stratagems and tactics that are seeking certain creative options, but are always making certain sacrifices at the same time. Inevitably this involves some form of moral sacrifice in the process. Just not to invite people who represent other communities is in a way a moral sacrifice.

Lynch: That is where the importance of having a trusting relationship becomes paramount, does it not?

Rosen: Yes it is very important but it is important that that trusting relationship—and this is very germane to your central thesis—comes from your own inner spirituality in relation to the Other because intellectually and strategically, because in a way you are being dishonest. When I meet with colleagues from the most fervent Orthodox segments of society, and yet I know I want to bring some of my Liberal colleagues to be able to be there, I have to some extent to deceive them. Now I will try to do it in a way that is as tolerable for them as possible, and obviously be conscious not to put them in an embarrassing position. While I am to some extent deceiving them on a strategic level, what I must never do is deceive them in terms of the inner spiritual content. In other words the sincerity of what I am doing and what I am saying must come across to the other individual. As long as the other individual feels I am sincere, he or she might discover that things were not exactly as they had fully planned—or there might have been things that were even a little uncomfortable—but within certain bounds they will be able to tolerate that if they feel that the motive is totally sincere. But it is a delicate balance.

Lynch: I am trying to put myself in their shoes, imagining what it would be like. It is difficult, because I was not raised in that strand of thought. I am trying to imagine what it would be like from their perspective to be with people they have never met before, and to be an authentic, Orthodox Jew and to meet with an imam.

Rosen: That is much easier for them than to meet with a reform rabbi, especially with an imam. As far as Orthodoxy is concerned, Islam is pure monotheism. Christians are a little more of a problem, because there their perception of Trinity and incarnation poses certain questions. They have to be able to hopefully get into position where they can understand that maybe the way Christians understand these concepts is not exactly the way they think Christians understand them. Of course that is one of the most important guidelines of interreligious dialogue—to be able to understand the way the other understands herself or himself, and not the way you have necessarily conceived of the Other’s beliefs. But for their perception, a Jew has to observe a Jewish way of life the way they understand it. Therefore a Jew who seeks to understand a Jewish way of life in a different way, or even propound it in a different way, is far more problematic than a Muslim leader, who is a pure monotheist. You also have to remember that from a Jewish perspective, however this has developed, there is not a universal imperialism—you do not have to be Jewish in order to be loved by God. God loves you as a good Muslim, and I would say also as a good Christian, and I would say also as a good Hindu. From their perspective, certainly God loves you as a good Muslim because their perspective is that Islam is pure monotheism. Their dialogue with the Muslim is actually theologically the easiest thing for them to do. The problem for them is because of the political reality, in the conviction—which unfortunately is on both sides, both the Muslims and Jews—that the other side is out to get them, or to do them in, or to get rid of them, or to undermine them, or to deny their dignity or their attachments or one thing or another. The relationship has been vitiated in the last hundred years by politics—intensely so—but of the theological relationships, it is the easiest one for them.

Lynch: To have a Rabbi Fruman show up at a Hamas rally in Gaza, having met monthly with Sheikh Yassin in prison I understand. . .

Rosen: These things get exaggerated. He met with him I think only twice.

Lynch: Is this something that you attach some significance to?

Rosen: Actually Rabbi Fruman invited me to go along to meet him when Yassin was released, thanks to Netanyahu. Of course it was Netanyahu who brought Yassin back to Gaza, because of his botched attempt to try to assassinate Mashal, and therefore this was the price he had to pay to King Hussein. When Yassin came back to Gaza, Rabbi Fruman called me up and said “would you like to go with me? ” I said “there is a limit.” I am willing to reach out to anybody who is willing to be able to at least seek to live with me in some form of peaceful accommodation, and even if that person says there are these conditions, 1, 2, 3—but somebody who is openly advocating murdering me, my children, and my family at the same time, it seems to me to be a rather rash thing to do. It seems to me that there you are behaving irresponsibly with regards to your own community because you are undermining their well-being. Now, Hamas is not the way many Israelis think, a totally monolithic structure. There are different elements within it, like within the Islamic Brotherhood, or like the stupidities you hear in America with regards to Wahhabism and Salafism as if it is all somehow totally inimical to the very existence of anybody else, and totally destructive. I personally think that is totally counter-productive. There are within all those communities the possibilities of finding individuals who are open to dialogue, and who could become interlocutors. Looking to the possibility of finding elements within Hamas with whom you could dialogue I think is a wise thing to do. It depends who does it and how it is done, because you do have other factors to take into consideration, of the ways in which it can be exploited and misrepresented and can do more harm. In principle, I am not against it, but I think it requires a very very cautious and careful approach.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Mindfully happy - Thich Nhat Hanh in Delhi

Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is an 83 year old Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and one of the most popular Buddhist teachers in the West. On October 4, a sizable audience in Delhi treated him with great respect and dignity, attentively listening to his joyous speech on the spiritual practice of mindfulness.

The content of his talk was a mixture of Buddhist philosophy and contemporary stories from the lives of ordinary people he knew. Major themes included being present in the moment, happiness, and bringing out the goodness and compassion that already exists in people. He spoke with such joy and reverence for life, that by the time he came to tell his stories, many audience members were visibly moved.

The audience listens
The audience listens

One story that touched many in the audience was his description of a failing marriage that was revived by the wife rediscovering love letters her husband had written decades before. He said that people should keep their love letters, so that they can be read later in life. It stuck me that it was through sharing ideas like this that he was able to convey his deep respect for the audience's lives, reassuring them that despite he being a celibate monk, he understood them.

Cooling down
As Thich Nhat Hanh was on stage with his fellow monks, one of the elderly audience members felt a little hot, and placed an brochure from the event down his neck to cool down. It seemed even at the back of the room, Thich Nhat Hanh was keeping an eye on things!

Later in the day, some of his monks led further teachings on mindfulness. One young monk, a delicately built Asian woman, sang "Breathing In":

Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am blooming as a flower
I am as fresh as the dew

Her confident, calm voice conveyed genuine love for what she was singing.

I am as solid as a mountain
I am firm as the earth
I am free.

She sang not as a performer projecting herself onto her audience, but as someone immersed in the meaning of what she was singing. She embodied it and radiated it.

Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am water reflecting
What is real, what is true
And I feel there is space
Deep inside of me

Till this point in the song, she had sung slowly and reverently. For the last three lines of the song, she picked up the pace dramatically.

I am free
I am free
I am free

Her song rang true in the depths of the hearts of her listeners, and all were uplifted.

Soon afterward a monk led an "apple meditation", by which he meant the practice of eating an apple with complete attention to the act. He encouraged us to truly smell the apple's fragrance, to feel the juice running down one's face, to imagine who had produced the apple, and to be aware of the sunlight that had nurtured it. He told us to be completely in the moment and be happy. As he said this, we all slowly ate an apple, including him. He asked for reactions from the audience. One woman admitted she'd never smelled an apple before. Another spoke of the appreciation for the workers who transported the apples from farms near the Himalayas.

I had a different reaction. I also allowed my senses to appreciate the apple. But soon my mind was occupied by the idea that I was eating it, and that life eats other forms of life. I reflected on the supreme mystery of that simple fact: life consumes life. As I did so, I was reminded of the fact that everything is destroyed. When the sun runs out of energy, life will be extinguished on planet earth. In the fullness of time, everything as we know it will cease to exist. There will be no apples, no Buddhist teachings, and no life. I was overawed by the mystery of that, but also afraid, because I knew the answer to the question of "why" this is so will always remain elusive. In the face of the ceasing of existence, mere happiness didn't have much meaning for me.

In the question and answer session that concluded the day, I tried to share my reaction and asked for a comment. I probably didn't do a good job of communicating what I felt, because in response, a monk briefly talked about the duality of suffering and happiness. Again the focus was on being happy.

I'm not one to argue against being happy and living a life of radiant joy. The wife of Sri Ramakrishna once said "I never saw the Master sad. He was joyous in the company of everyone, whether a boy of five or an old man. I never saw him morose, my child. Ah, what happy days those were!" Thich Nhat Hanh and his fellow monks reflected the spiritual power found in living a life of joy.

But in the face of the destruction of all existence, there is a limit to how satisfying happiness will leave us. Faced with death, as we all are, the immanent prospect of the destruction of our bodies is a powerful motivating force to transcend limited notions of who we really are.

I reflected on the famous moment in time when the "father of the atomic bomb", J. Robert Oppenheimer, witnessed the first explosion of a nuclear weapon, and repeated to himself a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." There is clearly something very deep that can occur when we truly reflect on death and destruction, whether it be our own or someone else. That can be lost if we merely focus on the here and now of being happy, without awareness of what the full range of the Buddha's teachings were.

Although I don't have much direct experience with the particular ways in which Thich Nhat Hanh presents Buddhism, given his vast experience and his stature as a great teacher, I can imagine he has a whole variety of methods to get his devotees to reflect on life in all its dimensions. I'm interested to know what some of them are.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Sex in the ashram

"I had a lot of sex in the ashram" a Spanish friend told me today. A mischievous smile covered his face. "When the day’s yoga training finished, you had a choice. You could meditate or you could find someone to have sex with. There was an Israeli woman who twice asked me to sleep with her. She didn’t realize I am gay. I refused her, telling her I had come to India to find my spiritual path." He laughed contentedly as he said that.

What he didn’t tell her is that he was having sex with his guru, the yoga teacher. He described the ashram in Rishikesh he spent a week at learning yoga as a hothouse of sex between people who may have met only when they arrived there. "They had a lot of energy to release," he said.

Earlier this year I spent a couple of weeks at three ashrams in northern India associated with Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Two of these were high in the mountains, well away from main population centers. The monks living there are able to pursue meditation and other spiritual disciplines in relative solitude. Nevertheless, they are not totally isolated. Both ashrams have small communities in the vicinity. Their populations are directly served by the ashrams in some useful manner, such as through the provision of medical treatment and agricultural support. The third ashram was located in Haridwar, a thriving city nearby Rishikesh. The ashram has a major hospital attached to it, which serves the poor.

The three ashrams accept a limited number of visitors who hope to deepen their spiritual practice in the company of monks who have dedicated their lives to it. All visitors are required to seek permission before they can stay. During my visit, at least, the great majority of visitors were in their 50s or later. While each ashram had their own feel, what they all had in common was the absolute seriousness of their mission. The monks have undertaken vows of celibacy. In an age of profound cynicism toward religious men who make such vows, it’s easy to dismiss such undertakings. But when you’re in the ashram, the atmosphere is such that it would be incredible to conceive of any of them having sex with anyone. Likewise, it is unthinkable to imagine visitors having sex with other visitors they’ve just met.

I didn’t ask my Spanish friend the name of the ashram he attended. I didn’t feel the need.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Who regulates?

With the Western world's press fascination with the ongoing financial crisis in the United States, talk of government regulation (or in this case, the lack of it) in financial markets has once again been a topic for spirited conversation. People typically equate lack of government regulation with lack of regulation altogether.

Things don't work like that.

The great American sociologist C Wright Mills observed in his book The Power Elite "That both state and federal governments were decisively limited in their power to regulate, in fact meant that they were themselves regulatable by the larger moneyed interests."

That is what has happened. Financial traders followed rules. It's just that they made them up themselves. The rules were not developed by mechanisms in which the public had any kind of hope of meaningful participating in, which is was democracy is all about. Instead the larger money interests used their considerable financial and political clout to set things up in their interest, telling government they knew best. And the American power elite let them get away with it.

It's very often not a question of regulation vs. no regulation. Rather, it's a question of who makes the rules, and for whose benefit.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Vodafone India and their "mobileconnect" internet access

As a rule I don't post on technical issues on this blog, but since I had a lot of trouble connecting to Vodafone India's Mobile Connect service, I hope this will be of help to folks out there. I registered for the service but it simply didn't work. Repeated google searches couldn't explain why I was constantly getting an error registering on the network, with "Error 31: A device attached to the system is not functioning" being the culprit. Calling their helpline was useless. Their support staff seemed like they had not been trained to deal with it. Finally I brought my notebook computer into a vodafone store and they suggested this line in the modem initialization commands:


It fixed the problem right away. They don't seem to mention this anywhere on the vodaphone site, which is odd.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Imagining violence

When I was in Lahore earlier this year, I heard a suicide bomb being detonated. I was not afraid. Last night there were approximately five terrorist bombings in Delhi. I did not hear them, but it left me far more disturbed. I think the reason why is because can vividly recollect where three and possibly four of the bombs were detonated. I have spent enough time in those areas to reconstruct the places that were attacked in my mind in good detail—the sights, sounds, and feel. I can easily imagine being a victim in the Delhi blasts, and I can imagine what the actual victims look like. In contrast, I had no idea about the site that was hit in Lahore. I cannot reconstruct the scene in my mind.

This reminds me of when I was a student in Carolyn Nordstrom's "Women and war" class at UC Berkeley in 1994. Carolyn taught that many civilian victims of modern war were tortured in environments familiar to them, using familiar objects. For instance someone might be tortured in their own home, using an ordinary household iron. The advantage for the perpetrator of the violence is that in comparison to violating someone in an unfamiliar environment, it will be better remembered. The power that violence has over people becomes magnified.

The people who chose the locations of last night's bombing probably had that in mind as they made their nefarious plans.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A different kind of sightseeing

"Buying things and sightseeing are fun for a while", said a German art therapy student visiting Delhi. "But after a while they are not so interesting". Given we had been having a conversation about Hinduism, I suggested to him that one could find plenty of sights by looking inside, within one's self.

He smiled and suggested a name for it: "insight seeing".

"How clever", I thought to myself. I smiled back, marveling at his command of English.

Sikh prays at Golden Temple - Amritsar
Sikh prays at Golden Temple - Amritsar

Friday, September 12, 2008

Becoming a better photographer

I am finding more frequently that people ask me for advice on improving their images. George Barr has some essays that I always recommend, Taking Your Photography To The Next Level:

Part one
Part two
Part three

Alan Briot also has some helpful essays.

There is plenty to read there! But for those who are serious about the artistic side of photography, I think they're worthwhile.

I will add only one brief observation of my own. It's easy to develop one's own personal style, and begin to see all your photographic possibilities through it. When you become good at something, if you're anything like me, you often seek to be better and better at it. But your style can obscure as much as it illuminates. It's hard to realize how powerful this effect is when you photograph by yourself. But when you're in a group of photographers, most of whom quite naturally will have a different style to you, the learning you get simply by looking at how others composed an image in the same place you were at is remarkable. You'll often find yourself thinking "why didn't I see that?!" You didn't see it maybe because you were thinking of something else, and they likewise didn't see what you saw. Maybe you were changing your lens at the wrong moment. But perhaps you couldn't see it because you simply weren't seeing it the same as they were. And even if you had the time, you still may not have seen it, because your personal style meant you simply missed it. It's a humbling and invaluable experience.

Here is an example. Here are a couple of my images:

Girl - Esfahan

And finally one by my friend, Alieh. I prefer her one!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Village alley - Lijiang, Yunnan, China

This image was made in December 1999. If I were to point to a single image that planted the seed of my interest in photography, this would be it. After this image, I became aware that merely taking snapshots would never again be satisfying.

Village alley - Lijiang, Yunnan, China

I remember it vividly. The first attempt at recording the scene had my companion in it. She was posing as people are inclined to do, especially when they're travelling. We moved on, and then coming back through the same alley some minutes later, I thought to myself "this is so beautiful, I should make another photo, but without my companion posing in it." This was the result.

At the time I using an ultra-cheap Minolta SLR camera, which I had purchased a little over three years before. I had no idea how to operate it, apart from pressing the button and loading the film. I did not use it very much. It was stolen the next year, and it would be five years before I purchased another SLR.

Ironically, these days I most enjoy taking photos of people!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Baba Kuhi and Hafez

Shiraz has long been Iran's cultural capital. It has produced poets and mystics of such renowned quality that some parents of neighboring countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan teach their children Farsi, just so they too can drink from the cup of divinely inspired verse and prose.

Baba Kuhi's tomb overlooking Shiraz
Baba Kuhi's tomb overlooking Shiraz

Hafez, born approximately 1320 A.D., is among the most famous of Iran's poets. Everyday masses of visitors and locals flock to his magnificent tomb, touching his grave and reciting his poetry. They know him especially for his romantic poetry, but he also composed poems on God and in protest of oppressive political rule. He has become a cultural icon. This was not always so. In fact in his lifetime he had enemies who were jealous of his prodigious talent, including among the conservative religious clergy, who accused him of not being Islamic. However his talent was too great to repress, and the common folk adored him. These days even mullahs may occasionally be seen praying beside his grave.

Hefez's tomb
Hefez's tomb

Baba Kuhi, who died approximately 1050 A.D, is less well-known. Indeed many Iranians know little about him, if they have heard of him at all. Unlike Hafez's tomb, which is prominently located in the city, Baba Kuhi's tomb is found perched on the side of a small mountain ("Baba Kuhi" translates into English as "father of the mountain"). There are no sign posts pointing the way to his tomb, and it is not even located on tourist maps produced by an elegant hotel nearby.

Baba Kuhi appears to have reached the highest levels of divine union, as evidenced by his classic poem, Only God I Saw:

In the market, in the cloister -- only God I saw.
In the valley and on the mountain -- only God I saw.

Him I have seen beside me oft in tribulation;
In favor and in fortune -- only God I saw.

In prayer and fasting, in praise and contemplation,
In the religion of the Prophet -- only God I saw.

Neither soul nor body, accident nor substance,
Qualities nor causes -- only God I saw.

I oped mine eyes and by the light of his face around me
In all the eye discovered -- only God I saw.

Like a candle I was melting in his fire:
Amidst the flames outflashing -- only God I saw.

Myself with mine own eyes I saw most clearly,
But when I looked with God's eyes -- only God I saw.

I passed away into nothingness, I vanished,
And lo, I was the All-living -- only God I saw.

(The translation is from Reynold A. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, London: Arkana, 1989).

Baba Kuhi's modest grave
Baba Kuhi's modest grave

When I visited Baba Kuhi's tomb, I soon discovered it was being reconstructed, from top to bottom. The grave itself was tiny and nondescript. The site was covered in fine dust. Rickety old chairs stood to one side. I looked up and admired what I thought was the handsomely painted ceiling. Only after clambering up the scaffolding using a makeshift ladder did I realize that the ceiling work was made from countless ceramic tiles which had been patiently cut into pieces and neatly arranged, including the detailed geometric designs. The man undertaking the work, Hamid, proudly showed me his handiwork. One day his children will come, and tell their children that it was their grandfather who built the ceiling, piece by piece.

Ceiling tiles at Baba Kuhi's tomb
Ceiling tiles at Baba Kuhi's tomb

Hamid left me at the tomb and headed back into town. I then meditated using Baba Kuhi's poem as my passage, concluding with a different passage that Sri Ramakrishna used to enjoy singing from. I wondered who might have come to this place before me and likewise drawn on these two mystical figures.

I headed down the mountainside and stumbled across Baba Kuhi street. Soon after I saw a woman in her late forties sitting beside the road. Next to her was a battered old car. I asked her if she minded being in a photo. She looked puzzled. I tried to explain that her face would not be seen. She looked even more puzzled. I took the photo. Soon a rotund man from across the street joined us. I showed them the image and they seemed to conclude I was a little deranged. "He's a tourist" she muttered to him, and he nodded in agreement.

There is a charming story linking the lives of Hafez and Baba Kuhi that deserves to be more widely known. As a young man, Hafez had fallen in love with a beautiful woman, Shakh-e-Nabat. His love was a hopeless love, however, as she was due to marry a local prince. In desperation he remembered the legend that if he were to stay awake for forty nights at Baba Kuhi's tomb, he would be granted immortality, the gift of poetry, and whatever his heart wished for. Determined, Hafez undertook a lonely vigil at the tomb. By the end of the forty nights, his most fervent wish had changed. His longing for Shakh-e-Nabat was supplanted by a longing to achieve union with God, which he achieved forty years later.

One a group school children singing Hafez's poetry at his tomb
A girl from among a group of school children singing Hafez's poetry at his tomb talks to her teacher

I thought it was rather neat that I had the good fortune to visit Baba Kuhi's tomb as it was being reconstructed. The symbolism of the two tombs is dazzling. Hafez, poet of the masses, awaits his many visitors in a manner befitting his role as a great troubadour of love. Meanwhile, his spiritual father quietly looks down from the mountain, seeing God in everyone and everything. Just like his tomb, true love is something that always needs to be worked on. Perhaps in future more visitors will come to his tomb and find what they may. Before leaving I had my own conversation of sorts with Baba Kuhi. "It is time", I told him. I hope he agrees.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Longing for home

Late last year I made a slideshow incorporating some photos I had made in Iran. I had made it primarily for friends, and assumed that it would not be of particularly great interest to anyone. How wrong I was! Recently it exploded in popularity, with tens of thousands of people viewing it.

The feedback I received from Iranians living abroad was encouraging. Some said how they were moved to tears. Some talked of their childhoods, and others of their planned trips home. From this I realized expatriates can be very much moved by images of their homeland, especially by imagery which is outside the mainstream that they can easily see everyday.

I had originally hosted the website on which this slideshow is located on a webserver in Aotearoa New Zealand, using the company OpenHost NZ. I found their service to be excellent, and I can highly recommend them. There was a problem, however. Given the bandwidth constraints of hosting a website in NZ, I had to quickly find a hosting provider outside of NZ. OpenHost NZ worked constructively with me and I found a new one in the US, where bandwidth limits are practically non-existent in comparison.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Violence and everyday language

In a blog entry recommending a couple of resources focusing on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, Z writer Paul Street opens with 'Here is a killer musical video from the wonderful left English folk-singer Billy Bragg: "The Loneseome Death of Rachel Corrie," adapted from a famous Dylan song.' Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer while undertaking nonviolent resistance against housing demolitions undertaken by the Israeli government. It disappointed me to read Paul use the term 'killer' to describe something dedicated to her work. I considered simply leaving a comment to this effect, but I decided it was more productive to ask him why he used that term.

In a comment, I asked him 'What made you describe the video as a "killer" video? If it is excellent, why not say so? Why use the language of violence and death to describe something that is intended to be uplifting and ennobling? And why did you use this in the context of a woman who died practicing nonviolent resistence?'

He responded with 'Damon please don't come round here unless you have something substanttive to say; tantrums over minor word-choice matters are not worth having online. Life is short.'

Paul's use of language and his response to my questions raises some interesting points. I will consider four of them. First, Paul interpreted my questions as evidence of a tantrum. Or perhaps he was merely trying to be humorous.

Upset Palestinian Boy
Upset Palestinian boy

Either way, it is of course impossible to tell, because our interaction thus far has been completely devoid of important signals like tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. As is well documented, people consistently overestimate their ability to deduce the tone of electronic communication, and tend to interpret text more negatively than they otherwise should.

My questions were genuine and it never occurred to me that they could be perceived so negatively. This was a mistake on my behalf. Another mistake I made was not to connect emphatically to what Paul was promoting, which is nonviolent, creative, life-affirming responses to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. If I had started out by saying 'I realize that you are describing very important work by courageous people who face hostility and danger on a daily basis' -- if I had shown compassion to Paul -- and then said 'I would like you also to understand how I am feeling in this regard' and then expressed my own thoughts, I then could have received a much more positive response from him. This approach was taught to me by Rabbi David Rosen, and it is something that I personally need to work on a lot more.

The second point is that the choice of words we use really does amount to something substantial. Every word counts. Everyone knows this. That is why racists use language that humiliates people they consider inferior to themselves, and that is why people who fight racism also fight the very language racists use. Sexist language is less common than before because of efforts to encourage use language that is more representative of reality. Therefore Paul's claim that using the word 'killer' is not worth discussing is simply wrong.

Third, using a word like 'killer' to describe something as having excellent qualities betrays the values of social movements that Z embraces. 'Killer' is a word associated violence and murder, and specifically with slayer, exterminator, executioner and so forth. These are not the foundations upon which we want to build our societies. They are the antithesis of nonviolence.

Whether falsely shorn of its ugly brutality and merely labeled 'force', or adorned in the vain glory of terrorism, the sharp edge of violence is its medley of methods that penetrate, starve, bowdlerize, impair, disable and pulverize the body. Its pernicious profundity lingers after the bodily act itself through fear, shock, denial, horror, despair and anguish; it manipulates memory by attaching itself to culture in distorting and occasionally insidious ways, including the language we use.

Israeli Activist and Soldiers in Palestinian Village
Israeli activist and aoldiers in Palestinian village

For those of us who have lived with violence or its direct threat, the choice of words is even more acute than for those whose exposure has been minimal. Waking up in Ramallah to the sound of automatic weapon fire close by is not something that is easily forgotten or dismissed. Having a powerful gun pointed at you by an Israeli sniper who is seriously contemplating gunning you down sinks into the ocean of the mind like molten lava – it burns and sears, eventually hardening into rock. Passing buses in streets far away from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv still prompts me to briefly ponder if they will be blown up -- such is the efficacy of violence.

Fourth, the deepest challenge of all is to always communicate kindly. The mystical side of Islam, Sufism, has a wonderful proverb about speech. It says that one should say something only if it is necessary, true, and kind to all concerned. My meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran, has written 'Millions of people today believe that unkind, hurtful language is a necessary part of communication. I feel very deeply, but I never use an unkind word. I have very strong convictions, but I never express them in language that would be harmful. I think it is Gandhi who pointed out that those who get angry when opposed or contradicted have no faith in themselves. When you have faith in your convictions, you won’t get angry. I can listen to opposition with sympathy, and yet I will stand by my own convictions whatever the opposition is. . . . When people are impolite to you, that’s the time to be exceptionally polite. When people are discourteous to you, that’s the time to be more courteous. By your continuing courtesy and kindness, you are educating that person.'

Friday, January 11, 2008

Six years of Guantánamo Bay

Today Amnesty International UK organized another by now annual protest against the Guantánamo Bay prison and detention facility run by the U.S. government. It's been six years since the first prisoners were taken there, and according to Wikipedia, "775 detainees have been brought to Guantanamo, approximately 420 of which have been released. As of August 9, 2007, approximately 355 detainees remain." Amnesty International says it "was one of the first to call for the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility. New voices have taken up the demand each year as more and more people have come to recognize the unlawfulness of the detentions."

Amnesty International protest
Amnesty International protest

The protest today was in two parts. Overnight, in the small hours of the night, activists braved the rain to spend an hour each caged up. At 10:30am the main event got underway. Hundreds of participants dressed in orange overalls and goggles lined up as if they were prisoners. Imposing men dressed in army uniforms barked out orders. Given the way they talked and moved about, they seemed like real soldiers. A couple of them had dogs. It was easy to imagine it being not so different for it to be all too real.

Close Guantánamo
Close Guantánamo

As is the case with many protests run by professional activist organizations like Amnesty International, the main audience for the protest was not bystanders in the street or the officials in the US Embassy -- it was the media. Photographers and television crews were in abundance. There were television crews representing channels in the Middle East and Pakistan, as well as media companies like Reuters. The event was staged to be friendly to media deadlines (and therefore distinctly unfriendly to people doing a regular 9am - 5pm job). Clusters of photographers gathered round a scene when something "happened", such as when a prisoner was ordered to lie face down on the ground.


I felt a curious affinity with the television crews. I can't say why, but I enjoying watching them film their newsclips after the protest had finished. Considering I rarely watch the news on TV it was a bit strange. It might be because from my own experience on working with audio slideshows I know it's not easy to say something into a microphone, all the while keeping the content coherent and the voice interesting. Doing so in front of a camera would make it doubly difficult.

Television journalist
Television journalist

Monday, January 07, 2008

Security, London style

As I stood waiting for a train at Tolworth Railway station, thirty minutes from London's city centre, I was stopped by the London metropolitan police on anti-terrorism grounds. The police officer explained to me that he didn't think that I was a terrorist, but his presence was designed to reassure the public that the police were keeping a close eye on things. He asked me some questions and filled out a form. He wanted to know my name, age and where I was staying. To describe me, he wrote that I was wearing a brown hat, green jumper, blue jeans, and black shoes. That was greatly reassuring, as if I showed up the next day wearing a brown jersey instead of a green one, everything would be thrown into complete confusion. I could not remember the address of where I was staying, but that did not bother him. He simply wrote "declined" on the form. How all this is supposed to keep the nation safe from terrorism is unclear.

If only the British Library was as relaxed about the addresses as the police doing their anti-terrorism work with the general public. To read a book in one of their reading rooms, one must register with the library authorities. They require original documentation of home address, which must be less than three months old. If you cannot provide this documentation, you simply cannot view the books -- no exceptions made. Too bad if you are homeless, or like me because of circumstances cannot provide the documentation they want.