Monday, July 24, 2006

"There is no god but God."

As I wrote in my last newsletter, I had some long days and nights of travel since Kalimpong. Some 40 hours on two trains left me in Jammu, capital of the violence-plagued state of Jammu and Kashmir. I knew things were different when I got off the train late at night and saw rolls of razor-wire leading me to a parking area that was so dark I could hardly see. And since I had no idea where the hotels were, I had to rely on the honesty and goodwill of a taxi driver to sort me out - not an ideal situation. But my driver was sweet and patient, and I ended up with a reasonable room in a skanky part of town. I think maybe the whole town is skanky.
After four hours of sleep I got into a share-jeep for the long ride to Srinagar. I was befriended, and practically adopted, by Younis, a 24 year-old Muslim kid in conservative garb - long, woolly beard, only a hint of a moustache, and a crocheted skullcap on his head. I mentioned the meditation retreats I'd done, and he said, "Are you seeking the truth?" When I said I was, he immediately pegged me as a candidate for conversion to his flavor of Islam, which, not surprisingly, was the only authentic and legitimate form of Islam. Like a true zealot, he was happier talking about the beauty and glory of his religion than listening to anything I might have to say. Still, he was incredibly friendly, and his older brother, who was in the car as well, paid for my lunch and drinks, and shared fruit and snacks with me. It's a very strong tradition in the Muslim religion that a guest has a place of honour, and they can be uncomfortably generous.
I met Younis the next day and he took me around town on his motorbike, my pony tail and his beard flying in the breeze, zigzagging in and out of traffic, and taking comfort in the knowledge that only Allah determines whether we get creamed by a passing car. We took a "shikhara," or little water taxi out on famous Dal Lake. The sides of the boat were about two inches above the water, and I got a little religion every time I stepped into or out of the boat, thinking about my camera equipment. When I commented that among a group of swimmers there were no women, he said sternly, "It's not allowed!" Later we saw women with the full black burqa, covering the top of their heads down to their ankles, and he criticized the one woman whose face was not covered.
It got really interesting in the late evening when we went to a madrasah, a conservative Muslim school where the students, all male, (from quite young to maybe late 20's) were learning, among other things, to recite the entire Koran, word for word. The Muslim "call to prayer" came over the loudspeakers, and Younis asked if I wanted to go into the mosque with them and learn how they pray. Following tradition, we washed our hands, feet and face, and entered into the mosque, with the right foot first. There were maybe 200 men crammed into this small mosque, shoulder to shoulder, all with white skullcaps on, and only about half of them at a time looking at me. Whoa. I tried to follow Younis and do what he did, which almost included scratching my nose until I realized he just had an itch.
Afterwards we went into the room of the local scholar, a soft and genial young-ish man who was instructing a group of older students on the finer points of Islam. Let the conversion begin, I thought. They asked how I felt praying in the mosque (self-conscious, I said) and if I had any questions. One guy told me that although I thought I had come to Kashmir for the physical beauty, if I looked deeply I would see that "this" (meaning Islam) was the real reason I'd come.
What interested me most was the similarities between the teachings of Islam and other religions, but you can't have that conversation very easily with zealots. "There is no other god but God and is his name is Allah" and it's not your God and you're not doing it right, ya infidel. I was also fascinated by the traditions that are based primarily on Mohammad's circumstances that have since been enshrined as saintly. They gave me a short book on Mohammed's habits, so that we can emulate them, and they include the sequence in which he clipped his nails, how he would squat, and the types of food he liked, among other trivialities. They also say that Arabic will be spoken in heaven, since that's what Mohammed spoke. I suspect that the beard favored by Muslims around the world is similarly based on circumstances. If Mohammed had appeared in the U.S. the 1980's, would you see Muslims around the world wearing leisure suits and gold chains?
But I'm being more harsh about Islam than I really feel. The Muslims that I've met here have been warm and kind and gentle, and nothing like the media portrayal of them. I'll have more to report, because Younnis just called me, upset that I hadn't called him for a while. I think there are more stories in the works...
There are 11 photos below:
A man making bread in the jar-shaped tandoori oven.
Sunset along the Jhellum River on my first night in Srinagar.
The famous houseboats of Dal Lake.
Some of the endless waterways on Dal Lake, which include houseboats, shops, and gardens.
A mosque.
A young boy outside the mosque.
Jhellum River, near my hotel
Using shovels to dig silt out of the river.
(The End)