I was irritated about a client's demand that I drive way out to her house to finalize our deal. Why not just fax it? But the evening turned into a blessing: in this season of having my stereotypes busted, I added two more: Muslim values and the possibilities for reinterpreting ancient rituals.
Sharmin is a young Muslim woman who works for freedom and democracy worldwide. She wanted a website to memorialize her father, Tajuddin Ahmad. He was killed as a patriot of the Bangladesh revolution--the events that George Harrison gave the concert for in 1971.
Patties and Pilgrimage
When I arrived at her home, she had made Bangladeshi vegetable patties for me, and she insisted that we eat a bite before we work. She said the Washington Post had run a story about her cooking. And indeed, the crunchy patties were the best I'd ever had, lots of tender onion and fresh coriander. As I ate, she told me this story of her recent "hajj" or pilgrimage to Mecca. I was still impatient to get our work done, but it began to dawn on me that I was hearing something extraordinary. So I relaxed and I put my focus on trying to remember every word she said. It was something like this.
Before I left, my Jewish friend Pecki asked me to touch the feet of Abraham and ask a blessing for her. (Footprints at the central Kabba monument are said to be those of Abraham.) I told her that would be impossible because there are four million people, all trying to circle the Kaaba, and my path would be very far out from the center. And indeed, my husband and I found places in the middle of the crowd. It was a wonderful experience, all those people crowded so tightly and moving together. Everyone must circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times. But no one was pushing or shoving, just looking out for each other as we all moved as one. And that made me realize we are all one.
I looked up, and I could see the stark desert mountains circling us in the distance, and then the moon and stars as they came up. I realized these were the same mountains that Abraham had seen, and Isaac and Ismael, and David. I felt connected to them. And it made me realize how important it is that we not walk around in circles aimlessly, that we must put God at the center of our walk, just as the Kaaba was at the center of our pilgrimage.
And then, it just happened suddenly as a miracle, a space in the crowd opened up, and there I was within reach of the feet of Abraham. I reached out to touch the glass dome that covers their imprint, and I said a blessing for my Jewish friend Pecki, silently acknowledging that Abraham is the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even my husband, who normally can't wait to turn his cell phone back on, was deeply moved, and said later he wants to go on pilgrimage again soon.
But that was just one of the seven rituals we must perform. Next we must walk the path of Haagar through the mountains to the well which burst forth when her son, Ismael stomped the ground. We must drink water from the ZamZam river, the purest water of 10,000 years. And I realized, how amazing is this. First we must walk the path of God, and then we walk the path of a woman. A woman who began an entire people by her journey to the well. This speaks of the feminine power of God, and the equality of us all.
And then we had to live one night in the street as beggars. The men wear two white towels, one around their wastes, and the other over their shoulders. The women who normally wear veils must remove them, as a symbol that there must be no barriers between us. Most in my travel group were westerners. We had brought plenty of food with us, but we decided together that we should give it away to people on the streets. And by the way, most people don't realize what a modern city Mecca is. You can get anything there you can get in America, except Victoria's Secret, and get it at half price: jewels, Lancome cosmetics, Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is very safe there. I could walk the streets alone at 2 am.
Then we had to live in the desert for five days in tents. I was lucky because my travel group had only 29 women. Some groups had 200 women in a tent. You sleep right next to a stranger on a thin mat on the ground. You are supposed to pray for five days, and mostly it is a wonderful experience of sharing space with people of every color from all over the world. And most people are very kind and gentle. But not everyone. I had just finished the Landmark Forum, so I knew that I must not be judgmental of people. But one woman spent all day telling others what to do. "You are not praying right," "Your skirt is too short," she said. So I just remembered that she was running her own drama and I didn't have to get roped into it. I told her I wanted peace and quite to pray. So she stopped bothering me, but she still told everyone else what to do. Another woman started yelling at her, "How can I be holy when you are driving me crazy." She made such a commotion the men's tent sent someone over to see what was happening. But I realized, just because I was being peaceful on the outside, I was still judging her on the inside, and so I must continue to work on that."
Converging at the top
Sharmin finished her story as I finished my second vegetable patty and glass of home-pressed apple juice. This is integral spirituality, I thought,— when we get beyond dogma all religions have potential to converge at the top. Sharmin then insisted that I also have some halva, a sweetened sesame butter, "So our relationship will have nothing sour in it." My spoonful was fluffy and delicately fragrant and only slightly sweet with the crunch of an occasional pistachio.
FINALLY we got to work, except I was no longer in any hurry. And indeed, the work went very well. Issues I thought would be problems melted away. I noticed how much Sharmin looks like me. We hugged goodbye, and she sent me off with fritters for my husband Andy.
Pulling away in the car, I realized this is what it's about. PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT'S IN YOUR PATH. I turned on the car radio and found tears on my face as the final chorus of a song trailed off:
And all this love is waiting for you
And all this love is waiting for you
And all this love is waiting for you...