Thursday, February 12, 2009


The drink sent down by unseen hands,
we drank our share, alhamdullilah!
The table set to welcome the guest,
has fed us too, alhamdulillah!
Kabir Helminski

thurs, 11 feb, 09

The musical performance and dialogue went pretty well last night, but there was an “incident.” I have learned a song of Kabir Helminski’s named “The Drink Sent Down” that I have been wanting to sing. Kabir does not give the exact source for it but it is from a collection of songs (illahis) that he explains in the liner notes to the accompanying CD are mostly translations of ancient Turkish Sufi songs, I believe. It seemed apropos even if still a little risky to sing it in an overwhelmingly Muslim country such as this. I’ve been practicing it a lot. It includes a refrain that the assembly sings over and over again like a dhikr beneath the verses––“Alhamdullilah,” which means “Praise is due to God,” and also includes the refrain, “la ilaha illa Allah,” the first part of the Ash Shahadah–– “the witness”: la ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammad rasul Allah––“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is what gets repeated in the daily muezzin’s call to prayer five times a day and on innumerable other occasions. I had asked Farid last week if it was okay to sing this song as a non-Muslim and he had said, yes, no problem. But I was still a little cautious, mainly because there has been the issue here in Malaysia of the government trying to forbid Christians from using the name “Allah,” although it is the word for “God” in the native Malay as well as other indigenous local languages.

Anyway, the Pure Life Society and the Inter-Faith Spiritual Fellowship seemed like a safe place to try it. As a matter of fact it went quite well except for one little thing. Amir, one of the members of the board whom I had met the previous evening, raised his hand after the song and said very nicely, “It was very beautiful but just one thing: it is ‘Al-ham’ not ‘Al-am.’ Other than that it was very beautiful.” Apparently I had not accented that “h” enough. I thanked him, but then another man near Amir stood up and said, “I am sorry but as a Muslim I must tell you I am very offended!” He then proceeded to scold me at length pretty harshly for that same mispronunciation, that it had changed the meaning of the words, and I should have known better. Needless to say, by the time he was finished I was mortified. But then a woman raised her voice and took the second man to task, saying that she was probably the only native born Arabic speaking Muslim in the room, and that she was not offended, she understood what I was saying and that this was not a sound easy for an English speaker to make (the guttural “h”), and that she was delighted that I had made the gesture of learning a song from Islam in this day and age of so much violence. Most of the crowd then cheered her. Then she and the gentleman got into a bit of a row, mainly about pronunciation, until the crowd again raised its voice and wanted to proceed.

I was by this time soaked with sweat. When everyone got quiet I first apologized to the gentleman and thanked him for correcting my pronunciation. I tried to make a little joke about the fact that I sing in different languages and quite often both my Latin and Sanskrit sound like bad Italian. But then I said there are two lessons that we can all learn from this concerning inter-faith dialogue: first of all, that this is what it is all about, learning how to speak with each other and correct each others’ mistakes; and secondly, that we each need to really do our homework when it comes to another’s tradition. Then I proceeded to sing “Hidden In My Silence.”

The ironic thing is that I thought I had done my homework about that phrase, to make sure that I knew the exact translation of it (“All praise is due to God.”), as well as knowing what the ash shahadah was. So, if anyone ever again accuses me of being too scrupulous about these kinds of things, I shall relate this story.

Afterward, quite a few people came up and apologized for the incident. Particularly another Muslim man in the crowd came up and apologized, “also on behalf of all Muslims.” I was very touched by this, because I thought I was really in the wrong, that I had not really done my homework well enough. I am glad that doing the song itself is not a problem, and that now I know how to pronounce it better. The folks bought many CDs and overall were thrilled that I was bringing songs from so many traditions and texts together, and I had many good conversations with them all. This was also the reaction in Singapore, and so it seems that this is an overwhelmingly good track, singing from Universal Wisdom. These of course are two countries that where the different faiths really do have to live together, not like America with its overwhelmingly Christian majority or even India with its Hindu majority.

Some of the staff members were still talking about the incident at lunch today. One of the gentleman said to me, “That was just divine intervention that that woman was there, because we would never had said anything. We usually just let things like that go.”