Sunday, June 29, 2008

Religion and Expression

Yesterday a distant colleague (we work in the same organization but there’s no cross-linkage – I wonder if it is because of the mammoth size of the organization or us …) said that I am insulting locals because I am upfront in my rejection of a belief that the god created all creatures in the world to be devoured by the human beings and understanding of the god as a power privileging one creature (human beings) over all others. According to my colleague we are guests in the country so we should not try to challenge local beliefs.

I am not sure what to call this … a cultural relativist approach to survive in another country, or a patronizing approach, or treating the Afghans as incapable to thinking, understanding and tolerance. Another distant colleague joined the conversation and tried to argue from a point of view that my rejection of the belief should not be treated as an affront to the locals and that it is a matter of personal beliefs and such an interpretation of my view is a denial of my basic right to hold and express an opinion. The colleague was told the view coming from a non-Muslim is an affront to Muslims including her, an expatriate Muslim. This was a new angle to the discussion about who has a right to expression and who has socio-cultural and religious rights within an Islamic state.This was an interesting conversation which threatened to divide the so called homogeneous group of expatriates – all my previous conversations found the discussions referring to the ‘expatriates’ and ‘nationals’ in a binary opposition as though each of the supposedly homogeneous groups were not at all divided or riven. In a way it did divide unlike before … for the next few days I avoided the distant colleague who suggested that I must conform (and devour all creatures as is the majority local practice, I suppose); the other distant colleague begin to regard the first distant colleague as a fake whenever that one critiqued fundamentalism; and the first distant colleague called two of us insensitive to Muslims at our backs.

I am still not able to regard the first colleague as a fake because some aspects of her life known to me demonstrate that she has trespassed fundamentalist ways … in fact, the way she lives her life demonstrates that it is shaped more by her personal inclinations than by any dogma. But I am not able to understand her apparent effort to simplify the world into Muslims and non-Muslims and deny liberal opinions in a Muslim context. She is also not a conservative or so I think based on what I have seen of her. Yet, I am unable to find a rationale for her illiberal and intolerant attitude towards very basic requirement, ie, freedom of expression, for a dialogue. Is it the fear of the locals … or an assumption that her identity as a Muslim puts her in a relatively secure position compared to other expatriates; that if she is seen as not conforming it may jeopardize that position …?

There have been tremendous progress in Afghanistan in the last few years that I have seen; there have been different developments in thought as well as in the way people live. A great mass of new knowledge has come into an ordinary urban middle class or affluent Afghan’s possession, particularly men’s possession – new knowledge about technology, world economy, development, international law, state systems; knowledge about the history and politics of the state and neighbouring countries and in particular about their thinking in matters of religion and the methods religious expression; and a revival of the interest about other religions, about the differences and similar ways in which religions and religious practices have developed.

There some Afghans I know who have not kept the information and knowledge newly accessible and available to them in a compartmentalized order – there has been an obvious influence of the new information and knowledge on their understanding of their religion and also a very obvious interpretation of the new information and knowledge through the lenses of the religion. With some among this group I have noticed that they almost in awe of the new information and knowledge mainly because they were deprived of these for so long that any bit of something new is far from irrelevance or being a fad. Some others see destructive zeal in the pace at which the new information and knowledge is flowing in and they would like to keep them separate from the understanding and practice of their religion because they feel otherwise they would be compromising their intellectual and spiritual integrity.

I haven’t had opportunities to have such discussion in rural areas. Discussions in the rural areas have been mostly related to the social (some bit of tradition and culture minus religion) and economic development issues. But I have found openness among even the rural people to accept my non-compliance with certain practices including meat-based food and headcover when I have made the effort to explain my non-compliance as matters of my belief and difference in culture. I have felt respected when I have said that I am not an Afghan and I do not want to imitate one. Some have treated my efforts as my intellectual ingenuity, some as daring, and some as sheer foolishness. I do not possess any sort of spiritual depth so cannot argue from a spiritual or theological perspective. I feel that the effort to explain my views and beliefs is indispensable to develop a relationship between different identities. The views and identity that I come with cannot be left as antagonistic to the local or their perspectives as unrelated from mine. There is a degree of incongruence in our views and beliefs but as human beings we must be able to think together on some issues and be comfortable in each other’s company.

I don’t think that there is anything new about the situation; I think this has been a perpetual state of affairs on our planet earth! Things have blended in a new combination in the past (some backfired) and things will blend anew. Some may backfire but I don’t regard not taking the risk as an alternative. It would be a pity to let our fears shut the doors to such opportunities of being able to co-exist comfortably in our separate identities.

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White Roses in My Backyard

Spring was short this year, it arrived late and is in a hurry to go –dusty winds are taking over fast. But there’s a bloom in my backyard, the least likely place in the guesthouse. Not many in the guesthouse know that my room has a backyard. Filled with streams of white roses and broken concrete path, and aged walls, the place has a character … it’s right next to a noisy road, so noisy that unless I play music at a high volume I cannot hear it. Sometimes I wake up in the night at the sound of screeching wheels. But just the thought of white roses between the road and my room makes the noise fade away.

The backyard is a safer place, it has high boundary wall so I cannot see all that exists beyond the walls … but only after I get in the guesthouse. I have to cross the road everyday before I see the white roses - it is interesting that the rose bushes do not have flowers on the side of the side of the road.

Before the rose bushes turned white, I used to think more about the road … more about the gaze of some eyes, some extremely painful, some extremely angry. I wonder if I instigate such expressions or they are just there, part of the person’s being their emotional state of being. I will not be surprised if it provoke such look … after all, my status as a humanitarian worker does privilege me in some ways … kind of privileges I will never I have in my own country. And the thought that I am hardly of any use does cross my mind sometimes, more till a month back, this month the white roses have occupied most of my free time. I do take a lot from this land – money, a greater measure of security which is not available to an ordinary Afghan, least to an Afghan woman … I have also received a label of a specialist. Sometimes, it does seem unfair relationship.

Before the bloom, I wondered about the women in blue burqa, briskly walking past or young and adult women in fashionable western-wear and high heels walking past with their head bent down and unlike me not looking in this way and that way. Sometimes, a woman would catch my uncovered head and slow down … and some of them eventually smiled and a smile in return would bring the polite greeting, ‘Salam, khub asten, jan shumo jor as, zinda bashen’ followed by a question, ‘Hindi asten’. The moment I would say yes, there will be so many other questions, mostly about cinema, television, and women. Sometimes, also about marriage and children. It never crossed my mind that most likely I will never meet the women again. I used to be keen to talk as well, to get a sense of normalcy and not remain caught up with expatriates alone. These days I rush to the guesthouse, to make some chai and sit in the backyard. I worry that the dusty wind would have blown away the rose petals.

Sometimes I saw children with expressionless faces as if they were buried under heavy stones … their emotional landscape dry. They made me wanting to reach out, get closer to their hearts, to pick the small ones and to hug the older ones. Some of them beg. Most children called me chachi (father’s brother’s wife), they are either returnees from Pakistan or have access to the Indian television soap operas. Among the older teenagers, some were bold, they would break into a Hindi song and ask me if like this actor or that actor. A not so enthusiastic reply would disappoint them. Often I would get angry at them and scold them. These days I ignore them and rush past them.

Before the white roses took over my backyard and my thoughts, I saw children who would break into a smile as soon I smiled. Some of them used to be shy smiles, some spontaneous smiles happy that they are liked, some giggly, some smiles were followed by a volley of questions. Nowadays, I tend not to see them. All because of these white roses. What will I do when the roses wither away … will I go back to thinking about the women and children across the backyard …

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