February 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
“Now–here is my secret:
I tell it to you with an opennes of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God — that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.
I walk deeper and deeper into the rushing water. My testicles pull up into myself. The water enters my belly button and it freezes my chest, my arms, my neck. I reaches my mouth, my nose, my ears and the roar is so loud — this roar, this clapping of hands.
These hands– the hands that heal; the hands that hold; the hands we desire because they are better than desire.
I submerge myself in the pool completely. I grab my knees and I forget gravity and I float within the pool and yet, even here, I hear the roar of water, the roar of clapping hands.
These hands– the hands that care, the hands that mold; the hands that touch the lips, the lips that speak the words–the words that tell us we are whole.”
-Douglas Coupland, from Life After God
October 27, 2010 § Leave a comment
There has only ever been one question. This is what I learned on the Santa Monica pier last week. I hadn’t eaten in two days and decided not to speak except one sentence:”May I join you?” This was a wonderful experiment with what might happen, or with who I would be in relation to others, without language.
It started off a little awkwardly. “My I join you? I asked a thin grand-motherly woman watching an 80-year-old carousel of galloping horses spin circles around mirrors and light.
She said yes and slid over to make a little space for me on her green bench. “Are you watching your son or daughter?” she asked. Couldn’t answer. Just looked into her eyes and smiled. And she left after a few minutes.
I walked back out onto the pier. A handsome dread-locked musician was playing Bach on his violin wearing a tattered red sweatshirt. I stood in front of him and listened to the music with my eyes closed. I didn’t ask out loud “May I join you?” And by standing there, listening to the music, I realized the question had already been answered. It occurred to me the music was asking of me the same: May I join you?
I noticed he was African American and that concepts of black and white had blurred away with our exchange. Musician. Audience. Violinist. Dancer. May I join you?
I felt the winds off the shores of Venice Beach pass over my face and arms, run through my hair. May I join you? they asked.
And then a painful thought hits me. The hardest part for me in asking this question is the belief that at some point one of us will leave. I’m not sure I every want to leave, or that I can. But is there ever really any leaving anyway? I wondered.
My feet carry me farther down the pier, past kiosks housing vendors whose eyes are filled with light. May I join you with what I am selling? they asked. May I join you with my currency? I asked. I remembered I didn’t have a penny on me, and yet noticed the question wasn’t going away.
I am journeying closer to the end of the wide wooden planked pier. May I join you pier? May I join you ocean? As I step farther and farther out beyond the shore, I am held by the pier, I am joined to both.
There is a musician playing Johnny Cash on his guitar at the end of the pier and I know all the songs. May I join you musician? May I join you Cash? May I join you ocean? Wind? Air? Song? History? Daylight?
I know the lyrics to the songs.
Off the end of the pier Mexican fishermen troll for Makerell. A fisherman’s cell phone rings, he places it to his ear. Another pulls a cigarette out of his pocket. A small Makerell is hiested out of the black water and writhes fiercely on the cold wet wood.
Suddenly, gently, everything is one and there is no longer any separation at all. Tears come. I see that I have always been the asker and I have always been the asked, and that nothing else has ever been true for anybody or anything.
Seagulls hover immovable in the wind, wings outstretched wide directly above me, then flap and fly into the sky, their home. They swoop and play in troops of three, coming together then parting. A heavy pelican cuts through the sky like a jetliner. He greets the seagulls and they fly together, diving in and out of gusts of wind. The wind moves through my hair. I sit down on a wooden bench. I am crying. I listen to the music. I know the lyrics.
May I join you? I ask. May I join you? I am asked.
August 28, 2010 § Leave a comment
When Carla stepped into Amina’s living room she saw many things she had left behind: A narrow cast iron coffee table was placed exactly as she had left it four years earlier. In the kitchen, the dishes, mugs, pots and pans she had once used sat on the countertop; in the bedroom, unsent post cards she’d wanted to throw away were displayed on Amina’s dresser, next to a large photo of Carla, who Amina always warmly called “ma fille canadienne” (my Canadian daughter).
Carla remembered an email Amina’s nephew Nabil had sent a few weeks after she returned to Canada. She regretted that at the time she had shrugged it off as her life had become more busy:
You cannot believe how much Amina has been thinking of you.
Yesterday she enlarged a little photo of you that she has hung in her room.
Each week she asks if you have written.
So this time she will be very happy to have heard your news.
The objects startled Carla. A life that had been transitory for her seemed memorialized, a testament to small piece of her personal history. The objects signified to her the depth of the impact she must have had on Amina’s life. In four years, Amina didn’t have the money to purchase new belongings, but Carla felt that her own life had expanded and changed with a steady inflow and outflow of objects in the way that only wealthy western people can experience.
“You’re going to throw nothing away,” Amina had told her on the day she packed up her belongings four years ago, leaving Casablanca, which had been her home for nine months. Carla had collected many souvenirs she realised meant very little to her. So she filled a few cloth sacks with piles of things she didn’t want to take on the plane.
If she hadn’t realized it before, this time, coming back into her life, Carla noticed the impact of what she’d left behind. She felt for a moment self-conscious, feeling she had left a mark on this person that must have also gone beyond that of objects, and that Amina may have been more fragile in her poverty than Carla ever understood. Carla thought about how people constantly impact one another, not only through the objects they leave behind, but through invisible things like gestures, words, and reactions like love and anger. She thought about the traces of herself she must have left upon everyone she had ever known and how others must have left traces of themselves on her, like souvenirs either cherished and held onto or stowed away and forgotten in basement boxes.
Looking around Amina’s apartment, Carla experienced her own unintended power and felt she had some kind of advantage on this aging Moroccan woman, by virtue of her youth, education, western heritage and relative wealth and freedom. Carla felt embarrassed: there was nothing inherently strong or special about herself, she thought, just simply, she had been born by chance into a luckier time and place in the vast trajectory of women’s history.
When she left Morocco in 2005, Carla gave Amina her pet bird, a shy yellow budgie she had affectionately named Habiba, which means “sweetheart”.
Carla had purchased Habiba the first month she arrived in Casablanca, traveling to buy her at a popular market on the edge of town, in a dusty poor neighborhood where the streets were wide and hazy. A friend and she carried the little bird across the four-lane busy road where they’d parked, put her in their car and drove her back to Carla’s new apartment.
Amina has been asking about you
And since you haven’t written in a long time
I told her that you probably aren’t anywhere near the internet
Since you live in the mountains
Surrounded by snow
Amina has bought a large cage with a suspension for Habiba.
I still love you, as always
And Habiba says hello
Habiba the bird looked exactly as Carla had left her four years ago. Sweet, yellow and gentle, as she had always been, she perched in her new blue-latticed cage, staring at Carla from one cocked eyeball.
Amina didn’t have children. “I adore nature and animals,” she had told Carla often. Habiba had become her little daughter, she said. She bathed her with a soft cool shower once a week, leaving her out to dry on her wide sunny balcony that overlooked the neighbourhood. Habiba gazed far into the smoggy horizon.
On the balcony, pigeons flocked to look at the shy little bird and communicate in a different language.
In the afternoons, Amina closed the doors and windows and left the cage door open for Habiba to fly around the apartment. This was a tradition Carla had started with the little budgie in 2004 and one she asked Amina to continue with. Carla didn’t want a caged prisoner of a bird, she said, but a real pet with her own freedom and volition.
Carla, herself, had loved the bird dearly. And even though she was just a budgie, Habiba had kept Carla meaningful company during the many months she had spent alone in Casablanca four years earlier.
Sometimes and at unpredictable moments Habiba dramatically swooped out of the cage with a piercing cry of delight, spread her banana yellow wings and flapped them uneasily around Amina’s living room, circling high and low, then coming in for an awkward landing on top of the birdcage, her heart rapidly pounding, her little body trembling with excitement.
This would be excellent footage for the documentary on Amina’s life that had brought Carla back to Morocco. She hoped freedom would be a theme in the film, and that flying birds would appear as metaphors throughout the final edit.
One sunny day Habiba was perched out of her cage so they set up the film equipment and closed the crimson curtains of the living room to not flood the camera with sunlight. Everyone waited for Habiba to fly around the room.
The first time she did it, the camera swerved and the image was shaky. To keep her flying, Carla nudged her with the poll of the sound boom, and off she went again around and around the living room, intense sun illuminating the red curtains, creating a glowing light that warmed the white plaster walls.
But the images still weren’t good enough. So again, someone nudged the bird with the boom poll, this time a little more forcefully, and off she flew again in a shriek. The whole film crew and Amina laughed and shouted as they watched Habiba.
“Fly Habiba, fly!”
They did this over again until they had the shot they wanted. Then Habiba fell one last time, now exhausted and frightened, on top of her cage.
After that day Carla noticed that Habiba stopped leaving her cage.
When Carla got back to Montreal, a few weeks later, she wrote to Amina’s nephew for an update on her life. Nabil told her that Habiba had died shortly after she left Morocco.
June 29, 2010 § 1 Comment
It was the last night of Ramadan, the sacred fasting month of the Islamic calendar. I had been living in Morocco for about five months already and though the streets and shops of Casablanca had started to feel more familiar, I was still a misfit in a my new cultural universe.
For the last 30 days I had tried fasting with my friends and colleagues, together and along with all of Morocco, we were waking up before daybreak for one last gulp of water, knowing that at the crack of dawn nothing – not water, bread, milk, the mouth of a lover, or even lipstick – would be allowed to pass through any of our lips.
My best friend Amina had pulled out of her dresser a long dark brown djellaba, the only one I had ever seen her wear. She looked so beautiful and sweet dressed that way. Like a precious porcelain doll, her slight build at 4ft 5inches never stopped charming me.
On the last evening of Ramandan, over 80,000 worshipers would congregate at La Grand Mosque Hassan II – the third largest mosque on the globe rivaled only by the great mosques of Mecca and Medina – for the holiest of prayer services.
Before I could enter, though, I would have to learn the prayers and Amina’s brother Nabil agreed to coach me through them. If I converted to Islam, he and Amina would benefit, he said. They would get points with Allah, and would enter “directly into Paradise,” Nabil pointed upwards with a dramatic sweeping invocation as he said this.
I was given a little tasseled carpet that I lay flat on the ground in the centre of Amina’s living room, a kitsch velvety image of the great mosque at Mecca, Nabil carefully placed facing eastward. “Allahu Akbar” God is Great, he said with guttural certainty. I recited the words in my head and went through the motions of the prostrations. I liked the feeling of resting my forehead gently to the cold tile floor. I liked the shawl wrapped tight around my forehead , the way it hid my long hair from view, bundling it all together. I liked the feeling of my eyes closed and the motions of the prayer. Knees on the ground. Forehead resting gently to the cold floor. The smell of the cold clean tiles and, most of all, the surrender of my body to the ground. “Allahu Akbar “ God is Great. Nabil taught me the last steps of the prayer, about turning my index finger around in little circles while sitting on my knees. Turning in each direction to say to an angel “Assalamulaikum” May Peace be Upon You. And then to face the other side “Assalaumlaikum”. May Peace be Upon You.
Later that night, the three of us piled into a taxi. I slid into the long black vinyl tube seat in the back of the Mercedes taxi, dressed in my new grey djellaba. Nabil got into the front seat with Amina. I didn’t say another word, just listened to them converse passionately in Moroccan dialectal Arabic. Every once in a while I heard my name cut through their sentences, spoken in a French accent “Marie”, and then some more impassioned discourse. I felt like a little girl in that back seat, trying to understand the meaning of her parents’ argument, too young to grasp the adult concepts and worries. But God was great, I thought. I was so excited, and I surrendered to the beauty of the moment, struck by how strange and wonderful it was to be carried to a sacred site of prayer, in a world that was still so utterly foreign, and to have these kind escorts on the pilgrimage. I watched the streets pass by from inside the taxi window: dark forms and shadows on the black streets of Casablanca, and then, suddenly, silhouettes of brighter forms and glimpses of faces at the lit-up intersections. This mysterious city that I now called home, the random people and the foreign world passed by me like a stop motion film reel, each shot filled with its own meaning, telling a story infinitely complex and wondrous.
In the dark, we pulled up to the mammoth mosque that jetted out onto the black sea. I heard the strong Atlantic waves smashing against a concrete support wall of the towering temple, its minaret looming 670 feet above us into the night sky, and I heard distant waves too, rushing at a softer far-off sandy coastline.
I had stopped speaking already and followed Amina’s lead. I’m naturally dark skinned and easily blended with the solemn crowd of worshippers that evening. Nabil took off towards the men’s entrance of the Mosque, and Amina and I slowly walked toward the woman’s door, across a vast flat ivory esplanade leading us to the glowing entrance of the mosque.
There was a guard at the door of the woman’s entrance. Amina greeted him but I kept my eyes glued to the floor and started to remove my shoes just inside the door. I wanted to become totally anonymous and merge into the spirit of the night, with no identity as a “foreigner”- an identity I had been trying to shed for many months now as I tried to integrate into my new home. Smoking myrrh wafted softly through the doorway from the back of the mosque where the women pray. We stepped into the carpeted prayer hall, and I was stunned by the beauty of the massive and expansive room, its spectacular arched ceiling that towered above us. The mosque was filled with thousands of people lined in straight rows and they had already begun their prayers. The muezzin that evening was renowned across Morocco for the profound beauty of his chant and he had already begun his song.
Amina and I found some free floor space and we began the prayers, exactly as Nabil had taught me.
When the prayers were finished, we stood up and listened to the final chants of the muezzin. Our arms hung humbly in front of us, hands clasped in contemplation. I closed my eyes and listened for a long time.
When I opened my eyes many minutes later the room was hazy with smoking myrrh and there was an ineffable stillness to the air, small sparkles of dust floated sleepily towards the ever-expanding archway. To fully absorb the experience, and out of curiosity, I turned my head gently and glanced behind me. There were thousands of women lined in straight rows into the very back shadows of the prayer hall. But when I looked a little longer, I saw that each woman was silently weeping. Each with her eyes drawn shut, soft tears dropped as if in slow motion in the stillness of the massive room. The tears seemed to fall in an atmosphere of total grief and total healing, a spontaneous rite of transcendence.
Stunned by what I saw, later that evening I asked Amina why the women were weeping. She told me it was because of the profound beauty of the muezzin’s song, that his voice was so exquisite in the recitation of the holy Qur’an on that sacred night, that all the women were overcome by tears. I felt I had witnessed on those faces a deep faith I might never truly grasp; but also, the complex layers of a reverence, sensitivity and sadness that lives in the shadows and depths of a woman’s culture I had only barely begun to understand.
Last week, in Montreal, I attended a live Sufi evening of sacred chanting. It was an event I wanted to attend for my 32nd birthday. Seven years have now passed since I was living in Morocco and had this experience of praying in the mosque. In seven years many things have happened to me. I have found and lost love, grown as a woman and human being, experienced disappointments, new sorrows and new joys, felt a new range of emotions that come with the complexities of a full adult life. But more importantly, since that time, I have discovered a new kind of faith, an inner truth I had not fully developed when I was just 25.
So in the dark room of the Place des Arts concert hall last week, I found myself in a front row seat, sitting next to a dear friend. The musicians walked slowly on stage and began their soft chanting and instrumentation. Following them was Sidi Anwar Barrada, a Moroccan Solo Hymnodist whose voice was so strong, elegant and pure that it immediately arrested me. The poetry of his song was so profound that I found something unexpected was happening to me. I was – but for a brief time – silently weeping.
For more information on Montreal’s Burdah Ensemble, please take a look at their website and beautifully crafted music video: