Wednesday, October 27, 2010

back to beirut and meeting a great man

Today many want to transcend the world of forms with possessing the forms. But we cannot throw away what we do not possess. The Sufis who were inviting people to throw away the external forms were addressing persons who already possessed the forms. (Seeyed Hossein Nasr)

26 october, back to Beirut

It's funny how these themes creep and then we see them everywhere. In Dr Nasr's book on Ideals and Realities of Islam, which I am enjoying greatly (belated thanks to Shannon and John), searching still for these universal truths, I got fascinated by the chapter on the Tariqah, usually known as Tasawwuf, which is the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam, better known yet as Sufism. Dr Nasr is showing how it is related to the Law, or Shariah, to make the necessary connection clear both to observant Muslims, who need to find the inner meaning of the Law, much in the way that Jesus preached to his contemporary Jewish co-religionsists, and to those who want to transcend the Law without having gone through the law. He brings these three together: the Shariah, the Tariqah and the Haqiqah, the Ultimate Truth. One leads to the other: you can't have the Way without the Law, you can't have the truth without both. I wonder if we couldn't reconfigure Jesus' words again (remembering Fr Fadi's formulation of the truth sandwhiched between the Way and the Life) and see here the progression of the Life (Shariah or Law) leading to the Way (Tariqah) which leads to the Truth (Haqiqah). And the Gospels record Jesus as claiming of himself that he is all three, which of course is shirk, or heresy to an observant Muslim.

As I wrote before, my friend and collaborator John Pennington has been here as well, in Lebanon, working for the US Embassy, a cultural envoy, offering clinics besides performing with the Lebanese Philharmonic and the Lebanese Orinetla Orchestra. After some difficulty, he arranged for us to do a performance at the US EMbassy itself for the Ambassador and her staff, Tuesday evening. So we all piled into two taxis and headed out of Damascus on Tuesday morning, one car bound for Aleppo in the north, where the lasty concert was to be on Wednesday, and the other headed back to Beirut, myself with Linda and Jonas, a bright young Danish man who is stationed now in Cairo as the director of Danmission's operation in the Mideast. But before going our separate ways, Agnete had another unexpected treat for us. We were guests of Sheikh Dr Salah Eddin Kuftaro the president of the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Foundation, with whom Agnete has built up a strong working relationship over the years. The Kuftaro Foundation, appraently to the displeasure of the Syrian government has been very involved in dialogue work for many years, especially under Dr Salah's father, Ahmad, who passed away six years ago. Dr Salah himself was just released from prison a month ago, arrested on some trumped up charges of tax fraud which were later dropped though he continued to be held, but reallyt for his work in dialogue and meetings with Christians and Westerners. Agnete thought that he might be taking a risk in meeting with us then, but he assured us not. His home was a good half and hour drive outside of Damascus, a beautiful little villa with a green lawn and a pool in the backyard, everything very neat and clean. He gathered us in a circle of chairs near the pool and just began speaking, with a gentleman named Mahmoud, who we had met the night before, translating throughout. He welcomed us as brothers and sisters, "grandchildren of the great prophets, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad." He talked about his experience in prison, and about his ongoing work, even offers that he ahd to live in other countries, including Russia. He told us too that he is to have an audience with the president of Syria soo, "And I don't think it will be to compliment me." He said he thought that there were three great problems that we are facing in this day and age: religious ignorance, religious fanaticism and Western exploitation of Mideasrn nartural resources. (I think that translates as "oil.") He has an obvious high regard for his relationship with Agnete and Danmission, and Agnete too was effusive in her praise of and affection for him.

Agnete then introduced me more amplyt and explained what I was doing there and elsewhere in the world--promoting peace and understanding between religions through music and dialogue. It sounded so lofty to hear it coming out her mouth! Is that what I'm doing? I'd like to think so. That is surely what all these other folks are doing and I am honored to be able to play my small part. She turned it over to me and suggested that maybe I had some things I wanted to say or ask the Sheikh. I was a little frozen, but I started talking and probably talked for ten minutes or so, about both the heart approach, through music, but how also I thought the head approach was necessary too, through study and understanding because--I have used this line a hundred times so far this trip--in these days ignorance is dangerous, and peope say a lot of stupid things out of a lack of understanding, and saying stupid things is what starts wars. I also mentioned that for all of his missteps, I thought that this was the area where Pope Benedict was correct and misunderstood: that he was trying to shift the dialogue from theological debate to cultural dialogue, sharing our common concerns as human beings; and how he was trying to bring a level of rational discourse to the conversation. The point he was trying to make in the ill-fated Regensburg address was that it is not rational to kill in the name of religion. He asked me to sing something for him with the guitar. Everyone wanted me to do the "Bismillah" again, since Mahmoud had told him all abou that song, but it just didn't feel like the right setting. And for some reason I really wanted to sing the Vedahametam. I explained the Indian idea of the purusha, and how I thought there might be resonances with the Sufi ideal of al-insan al-kamil, the perfect one. He liked that a lot and agreed. Then we had a very nice snack there at poolside, and some Turkish coffee in his private cottage-office-library at the back of the property. The Sheikh gave us a handful of little presents, books and prayer beads made by prisoners. It was really powerful to see someone who has been so persecuted and yet has not had his spirit broken nor his optimism shaken.

Then Linda, Jonas and I headed to Beirut. I met John at this hotel later that afternoon and, after a quick meal, his contact from the Embassy, a Lebanese woman named Diana, met us to drive us across and out of town up to the Embassy. You may recall that the US Emabssy was bombed in 1983, some 60 people killed, besides the Marine base being bombed a year later and the torturing and killing of William Buckley, the CIA chief, and some other aossorted killings and kidnappings. Now the Embassy has rented an entire village north of town of town, and heavily fortified it. It is very much self-contained, and no one leaves there without an armed guard. Also no one is allowed to have family living there with them. It was a comedy of errors getting into the place. John had inadvertently brought his wallet but not the pouck in which he has been carrying all his identification, and so wound up being without driver's license or passport. The two Lebanese soldiers who were at the first check point were not happy about that, even when Diana came up and tried to explain, nor when they got Ryan, the one who had brought John over, on the phone. They decided to check all of our equipment outside the check point. After rubbing the cloth over all of the cases and going to check it on his detector, the one soldier came back and rubbed them all again because something was giving off an indication that there was something explosive somewhere. A second check on a different machine cleared of us that. Then we went through individually, me first. Even after emptying my pockets completely the soldier's wand kept registering that there was something metal near my left ribs. But there wasn't! After patting me down, he went through my guitar case and one of the John's bags that I was carrying. Then another osldier led me down to the next check point where I had to turn in my passport and get a badge. At this point I had left John way behind and I was put in a cold bright waiting room for another 10 minutes or so, various soldiers coming in and out glancing at this guy with his guitar looking vaguely guilty.

Finally John got through as well and we were driven up to the Ambassador's private residence where the our performance was to take place. We were already about half an hour late so we were scurrying to set up. I didn't want to make a big deal about it, but I told John that I wasn't feeling well, sort of sick to my stomach and shaky. He asked if I was just nervous, and I said no, I wasn't sure what it was. I had already been feeling a little nauseous in the car, but I thought it was Diana's perfume of the crazy driving through Beirut traffic. We got going, but at about the third song I was feeling very queasy. I apologized to John and the audience and asked our host, Ryan, to show me the bathroom. I thought I might vomit but just stood there and breathed deep a few times and felt better. So I went back out. But not for long. As we were performing the Ambrosian Gloria, my stomach started heaving and I could feel my throat filling up. I barely made it through and had to rush off to the bathroom again and this time I was very sick. Somehow I made it back, with a mouth full of bile, and made it through the rest of the performance. By that time they had gotten a hold of the Ambassador's nurse and she was waiting to tend to me. While I was talking with her I started shaking and had to go again and this time even more came out. It was pretty gruesome, right there in the company of the Ambassador and all her invited guests. After that I was better and was able to have a conversation or two with her and some of the other guests. I spent a pretty dazed night back at the Casa D'Or, but I was never so happy to see a bed. By the time I woke up in the morning I knew my stomach was better but I was achy and feverish still. There was a long six hour car ride to Aleppo, Syria then, but I slept most of the way. Come to find out, both Ace and Steve had gotten sick too when they arrived at Aleppo the night before--it had to have been food poisoning from something we had all eaten. Ace probably had it the worst of all of us. He had actually passed out at one point in the bathroom and bumped his head on the toilet. Steve had to revive him and put an ice pack on his head. So we were none of us in very good shape for the final performance last night here in Aleppo... more on that, next entry.