November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment
Our lives shrink and expand in direct proportion to what we think we deserve. Oprah says, “when you know better, you do better.” And, if I may add two cents to that, when you deserve better you are treated better.
When I talk about deserving, I’m not referring to popular notions of the word in our culture, i.e. “You deserve a pink sweater!” or “You deserve a vacation in Paris!” Deserving is something deeper; it is not material, though sometimes what we feel we deserve does get reflected in our wealth or livelihood.
Deserving, as a concept, is based on principles of love, equality, and inclusion. This is the foundation of all human rights movements, from the suffragettes to civil rights, to the end of apartheid, to legal reforms allowing for gay marriage. It may be that for 90% of our lives we grin and bare injustices –or worse yet, the discrimination– we experience with bitter acceptance, until that light bulb of deserving switches on! We cannot, under any circumstances, make changes in our lives, until we believe that we deserve the outcomes.
This is why, for me, feminism has always had an important spiritual component. By spiritual, I mean, there is something larger than me, something that existed before my culture and language, history and circumstances, that wants my equality and inclusion. It means that equality is my birthright and the foundation for my existence as a whole person; it means there is a greater good — a kind universe, perhaps — that wants the full flourishing of my personhood, talents, ideas, happiness, and contributions. This is a “vertical” relationship with life, rather than a “horizontal” relationship with our friends, family, culture, and history. What I mean is that at some point a person has to feel her own value within herself, regardless of what she is getting from the people around her.
Feminism for me is not about what men did or didn’t do, or about the differences between men and woman; it’s rather an internal inquiry into what I feel I deserve, and into the worth, purpose, and potential of my own life. From this inquiry, the next steps become clear. I try to work on myself in the hopes of a better world, rather than the other way around.
A woman will not end a relationship with an abusive partner because her friends or relatives tell her she “deserves better.” A woman will not feel beautiful simply because she is told so by her boyfriend and culture. And a person will never, ever, feel loved until she believes that she is loveable. What an amazing realisation! Inner transformation -a deeply felt sense of the right to exist — is the only path to true equality.
When I was living and working in Morocco for one year, I saw some instances of oppressed and physically and emotionally abused women on a scale that I had not seen before in my life; these images and encounters have haunted me since.
One woman’s story, in particular, stands out.
My friend and film subject, a female taxi driver named Zakia, one day took me driving into a poor “bidonville” (slum) on the outskirts of Casablana, so that I could see how people lived in different areas of the city. We had the chance to visit a woman there who had done some cleaning for Zakia over the years. She was desperately poor and lived in a shack constructed with found materials, which was surrounded by landfill. Her beautiful 17 year old daughter “Lara” (names have been changed) had just given birth to a perfect baby girl, though remained unwed, which is highly taboo in Moroccan culture. Lara would later be obligated by her family to marry the man who she had become pregnant from, even though she didn’t want to.
After I left Morocco from that first visit, I was contacted by a friend and told that shortly after their wedding, Lara’s new husband had beaten her so badly that she had been hospitalised for many days.
Coming out of the hospital, she was forced to move back in with him, as divorce is not widely accepted in her family and community, and her poverty was extreme.
I saw Lara about three years after our first encounter and she was a woman who, from what I saw, had transformed from a smiley and chubby-cheeked young mother, into a gaunt, shamed, and broken spirit.
No human being should ever have to experience such abuse of body and soul.
I send my love and my whole heart to Lara, I continue to grieve deeply for what she has gone through.
I offer these words in the hopes that one day all people might feel deserving of love, safety, protection, caring, equality, and trust, and that one day our governments, families, cultures and societies might reflect back to every one of us our inherent worthiness — it’s what we deserve.
October 25, 2011 § 3 Comments
I’ll never forget an interview I heard with Leonard Cohen on the CBC quite a few years ago, where he said that we should never throw anyone away. This is not a perfect world, he said, and if we look at our life through the lens of Biblical history, we can put ourselves in the context of the story of Genesis, and how Adam and Eve first fell from Grace. We are no longer in Paradise, and life is simply not designed to be flawless. We are living in an imperfect world.
My struggle is with how to acknowledge the moral and ethical differences I have with people while holding a love for them in my heart at the same time. My struggle is this: How do I not throw anyone away?
Within most of my relationships, I’ve at one point or another made discoveries that have shocked me. I’ve found out that the person who I thought was standing in front of me had secrets he or she wasn’t telling me, or opinions I didn’t know about. These discoveries sometimes felt like ripples of trauma moving through my body and mind, as I had so badly needed to see these people as flawless, kind, ethical and honest (conforming to my definitions of these attributes, of course) .
One scenario that stands out for me happened while I was working as a journalist in Morocco in 2004. I had been hired as a managing editor in order to launch Morocco’s first English online new source. I was intricately involved in assigning articles, covering stories and editing the final texts for publication. After working there for many weeks, our team — a group of about 6 young Moroccan men and women and myself– had some disagreements about how to write about the death of Yassar Arafat, the Palestinian leader who had died the day before. In the context of a news article, my colleague wanted to write his name as The Hero Yassar Arafat, the fact that he was a hero was an unshakable truth for my Moroccan friend. Being educated in a Western Jounalism school, my bias in a news article was towards objectivity in our communication, and so I requested that we not refer to him directly as a hero in the text, since this was subjective and therefore open to individual opinion. It was of course a heated and controversial conversation. I truly didn’t want to make any claim as to weather or not Arafat was a hero and had little invested in it either way. With my Western journalist’s cap on, my mind had been thoroughly trained in objectivity and fairness and this was my main professional goal. I was deeply committed to these principles, and this is where the conflict with my colleague and I began.
What happened next surprised me and shook me to the core.
In the midst of an increasingly heated debate, my co-worker launched into a discussion about the Holocaust. He told me that it had never happened, and that it was simply a conspiracy designed to gain Western power over the Middle East. He had all the literature to prove it. My other colleagues chimed in, some from their desks accross the room, while others gathered around to contribute to the argument. What unfolded was the realisation that everyone I had been working with for many weeks did not believe that the Holocaust had ever happened. These people were my friends and colleagues and confidants, and I had no idea what I should do with this new found knowledge. I ran out of the office sobbing, and went to phone my boyfriend.
My boyfriend at the time was Jewish and the grandson of Germans who had fled the camps on the last boat to leave London for Sao Paulo, Brazil. His life had been deeply affected by Nazi history, and, I believe, as for most Jewish people with this past, the impact of the Holocaust continued to affect him on a soul level. Only months before, we had travelled to Berlin together and had visited the Holocaust Memorial site in the centre of downtown Berlin, as well as the Jewish Museum; we had even visited churches where Jews had been rounded up and held before being sent to the camps, and historical synagogues that were now, in the absence of a thriving Jewish community, simply museum pieces, albeit heavily guarded 24 hours a day.
In previous years I had studied Chomsky, who wrote a sentence that haunted me throughout this time: “To deny the Holocaust is to deny your own humanity.” I’d studied documentary film at McGill and in one of our classes watched archival footage of the ditches where the bodies of thousands of people were thrown in the days leading up to the Hitler’s defeat in 1945. These images had made me so nauseated, I had to run to the bathroom and throw up. Nearly a decade later, still very much identified with the Jewish story, I’d undertaken a Jewish conversion program.
So there I was alone, in the centre of Casablanca, on a pay phone, crying to my boyfriend in Montreal. I wanted it to be a perfect world. I wanted to share the same values as my colleagues. I needed compassion for a history that I knew was true. I needed to know that my boyfriend and best friend (also Jewish) would always be safe. I needed to know that morality would always prevail and that eventually there could be peace in our world and protection for all people.
A deeper dilemma was how to now relate to my job. Should I stay and work it out? Should I discuss this difference of opinion? Is it wrong to talk about whether or not the Holocaust existed? Would I then, in the process of opening up this question, lose my own humanity? I knew in my heart that any dialogue at all would give credit to an opposing position, and this felt intolerable to me.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend much time thinking about what to do next, because I was dismissed a few days later. I don’t think that my dismissal was directly related to this event or to our differing opinions; my boss told me there simply was not enough “team magic” to warrant me continuing. That was an understatement (getting paid for my two months of work would prove a challenge as well, but that is a story to be told another time).
So here I am today, faced with dilemmas that are not the same, but are dilemmas nevertheless. How do I maintain a friendship with someone who I have witnessed abuse an animal? How do I hold love in my heart for someone who has hit a woman? Do I maintain a relationship with an ex-boyfriend who lied to me? Can I have a relationship with that fun new friend who is homophobic? Do I sacrifice my own boundaries and moral convictions by opening up my heart or my life to people whose ideas confront my very sense of self, my moral identity?
When I address these questions with an authentic heart, in the context of my spiritual life, I have to recognize that I love these people, and there is nothing I can do about that. I can try to push the love away, but in a life of inquiry based on spiritual goals, love continually comes back to haunt us, even when we don’t want to admit to it. How can I love someone who has done something so terrible? Does compassion for a perpetrator condone his actions?
I know at a gut level that closing my heart to anyone simply means a world in which more hearts are closed.
I know that even when I have opinions that are so drastically different from other people, we both, at our core, share the same humanity, and the same desires for safety, connection, flourishing and self-realization. These thoughts bring me to a place of grief, grief for the times when my own heart has closed, grief for all the suffering that has ever happened in the wake of a closed and hardened heart. Grief for the realization that every time I have hurt someone, I have carried the burden of those actions inside of myself and felt the hurt too — that whatever I do to you, I do to me. Grief because this is a far-from-perfect world. Inside my grief, my heart expands into an aching acceptance, a surrender to the complex and messy living moment.
My personal goal is for what Martin Buber called the I-Thou (or I-You) relationship, which means simply that we stand before people with a presence that is not muddled by fear or judgement. We hold a space for the entirety of another human being, for his or her suffering, confusion, pain and strivings, and we hold this space for ourselves also. We become witnesses rather than arbitrators. Our relationships then become whole and they become sacred.
The question then moves from one of whether or not I can tolerate another person’s opinions, and what I should do about them, to this: Do I have the capacity to love? Can I find a path to love in an imperfect world?
Today, years after that warm afternoon in an office in Casablanca, I am still struggling to find this path.
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.
July 28, 2010 § 2 Comments
It’s been hard to find the motivation to write lately. Montreal is in the full bloom of summer, and I have been enjoying every minute of it – the beautiful weather, the ripening tomato plants on my back balcony, the many new friends and acquaintances who have come into my life in the last while.
I’ve been spending my time with Sufi mystics, whirling dervishes, documentary filmmakers, sailors, seven-year-olds, qigong practitioners, Ra’da yogis, hula hoopers, new and old dear friends, and feeling truly blessed.
Not only have new people, new opportunities and new creative ideas been a welcome addition to my days this summer, so have new teachings and new insights.
I’ve come across the work of a woman named Byron Katie. Katie, as she likes to be called, while in the midst of a debilitating depression, became aware of a process of inquiry that can liberate our mind from habits of negative thinking. Blown away by her method, I have for the last two weeks been reading her books and working through the exercises.
The main premise for Katie’s work is that “when we believe our thoughts we suffer, and that this is true for every human being.” After doing her excercises, I’ve come to know that this is also true for me. When I believe my negative thoughts about people, about myself, about my world, I suffer.
And this is the root of all war. “Defence,” says Katie, “is the first act of war.” The thoughts that get stuck in our minds polarize us from the people we love, the people who love us, and from the beautiful, perfect world as it is in this moment.
There is a back story to this search of mine, and I’d like to share with you some parts of it.
When I arrived back to Montreal from my film shoot in Morocco in June 2008 (it feels like a million years ago now), I felt that everything I had wanted to accomplish had failed; that the goals I had wanted to attain on my journey had fallen apart. My efforts and hard work seemed to count for nothing, and the world, my relationship, my friendships, my plans, all appeared to have turned upside down.
Around that time I discovered the writings of Eckhart Tolle and I turned to his teachings for solace and understanding. I had studied world religions in university and had saught to find a spiritual home in many traditions over the course of my life: Hindu yoga philosophy, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, but for some reason, despite my open heart and efforts, I felt that a block would always emerge from my total integration into one faith or another.
That summer, I read in great depth Tolle’s two books; first, A New Earth, and then The Power of Now. Poring over the pages and practising what he calls “stillness”, I was able to for brief moments cut through my pain and confusion and experience the world as it was: a living, magical phenomenon of timeless life, as it had always been, gentle and kind.
One of Tolle’s exercises is to simply observe the world without labels. He asks us to, for example, go outside and look at a tree without labelling it “tree”, in order to experience the totality of that magical phenomenon we call “tree” without the mental construct or label. So, inside my tiny studio apartment one afternoon, I gave it a try. I looked at my old wooden chair and removed from my mind the label “chair.” I then did this with my desk and a few other objects in my apartment until I was able to observe my whole room that way. From a still mind, what I saw was the totality of the present moment, understanding that the present moment is indeed the only moment that will and can ever exist. When the mind is quiet enough, removed of thoughts of the past and the future, removed of its endless chatter and judgements, the moment arrives, and the moment is vast, still, ineffable, perfect.
For a few weeks that summer, I began a walking meditation around my neighbourhood. I walked around my block slowly, observing the world without labels, noticing at what pace I would have to walk in order to experience the present moment most fully. I experienced a lot of peace in that slow walking meditation, marvelling at the sunshine, the trees, the gardens, and even my neighbours, who for the first time revealed themselves to me without labels.
I thought back to some of the teachings of my first spiritual teacher Baba Hari Dass. In 1997 I had read in his book Silence Speaks, “When the heart softens by getting closer to God, one begins to feel love everywhere.” At 19 years old, I wasn’t sure what this meant, or that I believed in a God, or knew what “love everywhere” could feel like.
In those fleeting experiences of meeting the present moment, I got an inkling of what he might have been talking about. Love had always been everywhere, as it is for everyone, we only have to be still enough to meet it.
After my return from Morocco, I didn’t know it yet, but life was about to get a lot more complicated for me. I could have kept up this practice of present moment awareness, but I simply wasn’t able to.
Byron Katie’s work is sometimes referred to as a method of putting into practice the philosophy of Eckhart Tolle. While Tolle teaches the “what”, Katie teaches the “how”.
Her method of inquiry involves simply questioning our negative thoughts with four questions:
1) Is it true?
2) Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
3) How do I feel and react when I think that thought?
4) Who would I be without that thought?
Finally, she teaches us to turn the thought around. “He doesn’t care about me” becomes, “I don’t care about me,” and ” I don’t care about him”. We are instructed to find three examples of how those turnarounds might be true, or even truer, than our original painful thought.
What happens is a miraculous and effortless loosening of the grip of negative thinking, as we meet reality as it is. What also happens is a kind of detachment from our thoughts, something that the Buddha and eastern philosophies have taught for centuries as a way out of suffering.
Katie teaches that violence cannnot happen in our lives if we question our thoughts; it can only happen when we believe our thoughts. That is why, if we take care of what is going on first within our own minds and hearts, within our own reactions and judgements, we will not be able to carry out violence towards others or towards ourselves.
What I now take this to mean is that when we stop the violence in our own hearts, we end war in the world. The only time we can experience war in the world is through the war that happens, day in and day out, inside our own minds. We must heal this war inside ourselves first for peace to be possible.
Byron Katie calls this a process. “We’re not just whacked free,” she says. From the way I have experienced it, this is the kind of love we come to as refugees, when most other techniques of the mind have failed us. How wonderful to have such a method of inquiry. What a gift.
“We’re stepping into a whole new paradigm here.” she says.
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: