Thursday, 24 July 2014

My Islam

Hatiya, Noakhali. The village that made my Bangladesh.

It used to be that of a village Eid morning in Hatiya I’d get ready along with my Bengali brothers. After bathing in the pond we’d dress and walk the short distance to the mosque. What I wore varied. In later years I had fashionable Dhanmondi-style panjabis to choose from. Earlier I used to wear the greenish kabliwala set that my friend and brother Situ gave me. It was the only design readily understood by the local tailors.

The mosque is small and not old, and those who attend are family, friends and neighbours. There’d be a few personal prayers for Abba, who I never met but whose grave is there. We’d wash our hands and feet and I confess I often got a bit of stabilisation assistance from the others while dipping toes into the mosque pond so as not to fall over... Then we’d go inside.

Kids playing in the monsoon wonderland. Eid arrives in the monsoon months this year.

I like that mosque. The weekday Imam is youthful and friendly, and there’s no denying the distinctive qualities of his adhan call to prayer. It may not be of the sort that’s striking for its mystical, high beauty – such as an adhan I once heard while passing through Seremban, Malaysia, which seemed so intrinsic and harmonious that it may as well have been welded into the dawn.

No, our Imam’s adhan has a, shall-we-say, personal quality. When his voice wavers and the notes take on a more creative fluctuation – he’s doing his best, he’s really doing his best... When there’s the added flare of a high-pitched squeal from the PA system – being as it is... With the general muffled ambience familiar to current village-mosque technology... we love it all the more.

He is our Imam. It is his adhan – the one which by tradition at the Fajr dawn hour comes as finale to all the adhans in the area. It’s well-understood that not everybody can be a morning person. Although on Fridays and at Eid he bows to experience our Imam is always there.

My Eid mosque-going tradition arose naturally. Nobody told or encouraged me. Hatiyalas are too polite. It simply seemed strange that on a special day like Eid I would not share in the customs of the neighbourhood – in the same way we sometimes attend kirtan with our Hindu friends. It was my heart that took me to the mosque.

Hatiya's monsoon sky.

Inside, I used to find a place at the back so as not to get in anybody’s way. While we were sitting my legs would descend into pins and needles, eventually falling asleep such that at the end of the service I’d have trouble standing. While they were actually performing the namaz prayer I’d – rightly or wrongly, I could never decide which – add a little silent Christian-style prayer of my own. It was what I knew how to do – a way of showing respect for their beliefs and for them.

Afterwards there’d be the usual congregating on the road with those heart-to-heart salaams reserved for special days, a tradition in which I was entirely included. I was more than included because while I would have wished to say, “Thank you so much for not minding my attendance,” it was rather them who said, “We are so honoured that you shared our Eid.”

It’s a far cry from common perceptions of Islam in Australia, unfortunately.

The main road in Hatiya that became so overflowing with respectful greetings...

But I suppose the first meaningful contact I had with Islam was in Rajasthan, before Bangladesh. What I recall from those initial curious visits to various desert and semi-desert mosques was the strong sense of peace to be imbibed within, while sitting on the floor inside. It was easy to find a spiritual quality in that space. Incidentally I’ve known Iranian Muslims to admit as much about Sydney’s cathedrals.

Then there was the hospitality tradition. I came to expect it whenever visiting any Muslim majority country, and while culture also plays a role I have never been disappointed. Probably more than any other religion, Islam respects the stranger, the traveller, the guest...

A third early impression arose when it came to be that moving along the road in Hatiya meant encountering numerous salaams from villagers. It was quite a while before I genuinely appreciated it was not simply a ‘hello, hi’ but respect they were giving – the islanders are sincere in it. When it was explained, when it sunk in that it was more than a ‘hello’, I was really touched. Later – I was a little slow in adapting – I became better at salaam-giving also.

Meanwhile in Sydney where I used to speak of such experiences freely I don’t think I ever came to grips with the overwhelming but thankfully not entirely universal response to my chat: the sense of fear. It was so easy to underestimate and overlook the prejudices that characterise that society’s view of Islam, since the true complexity and diversity of Muslim communities was so blatantly clear to me. My Islam had become as our Imam’s adhan – original and personalised.

Monsoon road. Hatiya, Noakhali.

But I suppose not accepting that differences must divide us runs in my Australian family. My father’s clan were Presbyterian while mother was raised as a Catholic. One Catholic grandmother married a Lutheran grandfather and in those days due to denominational differences he was not allowed to walk in the front door of the Catholic Church – when they eloped he came in via the unceremonious side door. Sometimes in response to the protestant-catholic question I used to say I was Cathlotestant... and it’s surprising that some otherwise educated Australians had difficulty in accepting even that answer. Sometimes people are like buildings. They take their structure from walls. But I don’t believe God cares for petty categories.

And on 11 September 2001 after I knew that my Australian brother in New York was okay, my main concern was for the inevitable anti-Muslim backlash. I made a personal vow: whatever happens, nothing will come between me and the Hatiyalas. That tiny but rather wonderful history we made together was more important than ever.

And yet it is sadly true that Australians can have no confidence in mature, moderate governance, especially in the country’s security sector. It is sadly true that hysteria reigned and division still does. Somehow I kept my Hatiyan Islam anyway...

Monsoon landscape. Hatiya, Noakhali.

The church in Aizawl, Mizoram.
On the other side of the coin, a few years ago came the first convenient opportunity for Situ to experience a church service – just to see how it is. We were in Aizawl, Mizoram and the Presbyterian evening service was in Mizo. We sat up the back so as not to get in anybody’s way. While one lady down the front became so moved when the music played that she started an animated dance and sang a loud lively solo, we did our best to simply follow the song book, singing in unknown Mizo language which is written with familiar European script, without knowing the tune. It must’ve made our Imam’s adhan seem as traditionally beautiful as that Malaysian adhan I once heard.

With the difficulties of transport to Hatiya I will share Eid in Dhaka this time. For the past eighteen years Islam has been a part of the mix of religious influences that make me. It’s something for which I am grateful. I’ve always felt it was life-enriching. But perhaps it’s simply Bengali: differences shall not divide us! So from a non-Muslim to Muslims and non-Muslims all, I wish you a happy and joyous Eid!

After the rain comes the sun.

Me in modern Dhaka panjabi.

This article published in Star Magazine, here: My Islam.