Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Sarmini, whirling dervishes cast musical spell at ROHM
Muscat: In a concert that lasted over three hours instead of the slated hour, Syrian singer Omar Sarmini, accompanied by whirling dervishes, impressed the largely Arab audience Friday night at the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM).
Sarmini is a master of tarab, Arabic music, which aims to reach people on an emotional level. He studied Quran recitation from a young age, and religion heavily influences his music, as does poetry. His passion for the music and topics of which he sings was evident when he performed, as he often had a smile on his face and seemed inspired to go well beyond the set time.
For many Western patrons of the ROHM, Sarmini’s music may not have been familiar, and given that much of it sounds repetitive, some seemed to lose interest rather quickly.
Yet, whether or not one understood it, Sarmini transcended the language barrier and it was clear that he was singing the most beautiful verses of the Holy Quran, and poetry about nature and love. One also couldn’t help but be impressed with Sarmini’s clear, strong voice, and by his ability to hold long notes without catching his breath.
Sarmini was accompanied by 13 musicians, some of whom played traditional Arabic instruments including the oud, kanun, rek (tambourine), nai (flute), and tabla (drum). All of the musicians faced the audience, which was lovely since one could watch their techniques. The tabla player was especially fun to watch because at times he would flip the instrument in the air, catch it and continue playing.
It was wonderful to see traditional Arabic instruments being played at the ROHM, but unfortunately at times the oud and kanun were inaudible because the drums, string instruments and chorus overpowered them. When the percussion section was silent, it was lovely to hear the tinkling of the kanun and beautiful oud.
Perhaps, the ensemble would have been better off without microphones, especially considering that the ROHM has state-of-the-art acoustics.
Joining Sarmini and his ensemble on stage at the end of each act was a group of whirling dervishes, the Mawlawi Darwhich dancers. The Sufi dancers are supposed to spin to the music, much of which is based on the poetry of the mystic Sufi Rumi, until they are in a spiritual trance that they believe helps them connect to God.
Initially, five dancers appeared on stage dressed in black robes with their arms folded over their chests. They stood on the stage for several minutes as the anticipation built before they began slowly spinning. As the music sped up, so did the dancers, their feet rapidly flashing in circles under their robes.
At the end of the second act, the dancer reappeared, eagerly awaited by the audience. This time their black robes were open, a sign that they were closer to rebirth and religious understanding. As the music began, the dancers, now six on stage, began swaying and tilting their shoulders. After several minutes of the same movement, they took off their black robes, revealing their big, long white skirts underneath.
Again, they started spinning slowly, but as they got faster, their skirts opened up into wide circles floating out around them. They spun faster and faster, opening their arms, touching their shoulders and folding their arms over their torsos before repeating those movements.
They were really fascinating and almost mesmerising to watch, but sadly they seemed too choreographed and not emotional enough. Their movements didn’t come across as personal or very inspired, but clearly staged since their arms were all in sync.
When Sarmini, his ensemble and the dancers finally finished, there was an immediate standing ovation, so clearly this first Arabic concert for the second half of the ROHM’s inaugural season was a hit, especially among the Arab fans!
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Insight: Would-be presidents court Senegal's holy kingmakers
Touba: It is not everyday that Senegal's octogenarian president Abdoulaye Wade lets the television cameras into his bedroom.
But Wade, seeking a new term in next month's election, was quick to usher them in when his visitor was Serigne Abo Mbacke, a leader of the 129-year-old Mouride order of Islam which counts millions of devotees in his West African country.
The ensuing images of two men demurely perched next to each other on a king-size divan may not have made great television. But the photo opportunity was not lost to voters as proof of the intimate link between Senegal's Islamic "Brotherhoods" and the body politic of this Muslim but staunchly secular state.
"I have never hidden that I am a Mouride - anyone who votes for me knows they are voting for a Mouride," Wade told Reuters after this month's meeting at a plush residence in Touba, the central town that is the Mourides' spiritual home.
"Any power must have a popular base, and as it happens I benefit from this very broad popular support."
The Mourides are one of four main Muslim communities who have helped shape history in one of Africa's most stable democracies and whose leaders - known as "marabouts" - are being courted by politicians of all hues before a February 26 election.
A religious, economic and social force with no real parallel elsewhere, Senegal's Brotherhoods are a pillar of the moderate Sunni Islam espoused by over 90 percent of the nation, yet co-exist comfortably with minority Christians and other faiths.
Far removed from Islamist insurgents like Boko Haram of Nigeria, the Brotherhoods accept Senegal's secularism and do not use their influence to press demands for Islamic sharia law.
Their deep-rooted pacifism is one factor why there is little local sympathy for al Qaeda, even as it establishes bases in neighboring Mauritania and Mali. In 2001, Senegal's marabouts condemned the 9/11 attacks on the United States as un-Islamic.
Their forte is commerce, be it running stalls in the sprawling open-air markets of the capital Dakar, or as entrepreneurs using contacts to tip a construction deal. A growing diaspora does everything from import-export in New York to hawking tourist trinkets under Paris' Eiffel Tower.
Now, as Senegal approaches an election watched nervously abroad as the latest test of democracy in Africa, the coming weeks will show how much influence they have on this rapidly evolving society - and whether they are ready to use it.
Wade's critics have branded his decision, at 85, to stand for a third term as a flagrant breach of constitutional rules limiting him to two mandates.
Anger at his attempt last June to overhaul election rules triggered some of the worst street clashes with security forces seen in Dakar. Whether Senegal is now able to avoid further unrest may depend, at least in part, on its marabouts.
ELECTION COMES TO TOUBA
A heavily-set figure in a pristine white robe and with an earpiece connected to his Apple iPhone, Cheikh Abdoul Ahad Mbacke Gainde Fatma has seen more Dakar politicians in the last 24 hours than most Senegalese will see in a lifetime.
Ahad Mbacke is the great-grandson of revered Mouride founder Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke and heads the organizing committee for the "Grand Magal," the annual Mouride festival which draws millions to Touba for a week of praying, eating and revelry.
His family compound a short walk from Touba's Great Mosque is as much a blend of tradition and modernity as he is. In the main yard, off-road vehicles jostle for space with live sheep and a camel tethered close to the pots of an outside kitchen.
"Virtually all the candidates have come here. A politician who is not on good terms with Touba cannot govern this country," Abdoul Ahad, cross-legged on the floor, says matter-of-factly.
A quick roll call of visitors suggests he has a point.
Aside from Wade himself, his prime minister, finance minister and interior minister attended Touba ahead of Magal, as did Dakar's Socialist mayor Khalifa Sall - not a candidate this time but widely tipped as a future presidential hopeful.
Ex-premiers Idrissa Seck, Macky Sall and Moustapha Niasse, all standing for election next month, have put in an appearance at Touba, along with world music star Youssou N'Dour, whose last-minute entry into the race has made world headlines.
It would be wrong to say the VIP visitors are here purely to fish for votes. Many have come back to Magal year after year, while in N'Dour's case, his strong Mouride faith inspired his Grammy-winning 2004 album "Egypt."
Yet as current Prime Minister Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye steps out of his meeting with senior Mourides, there is no missing the unmistakable sight of a politician on the campaign trail.
"It is a time for meditation but also for prayer. And so we pray to God to help us secure a first-round victory for our candidate Abdoulaye Wade - if God wills it," Ndiaye, speaking outside Touba's Grand Mosque, told reporters.
THE VOTE ORDER FROM ON HIGH
As with Wade's bedside encounter with the marabout, the Magal timing and venue of Ndiaye's soundbite will hit an instant chord with Senegalese voters who have seen the hand of the religious leader at work in their country's defining moments.
Even as the hour of independence struck, Senegal's marabouts influenced both its timing and future course, first urging voters to reject a break with France in a 1958 referendum and then backing the left-leaning Catholic Leopold Sedar Senghor as the founding president of the new nation two years later.
For a would-be president, the most coveted prize from Magal is a "ndiguel" from the Mouride caliph himself - an order issued from on high to his followers to vote for the chosen candidate.
The last vote order was given in 1988 to incumbent socialist president Abdou Diouf - ironically, a Tidiane, not a Mouride - which helped him fend off a challenge from the-then opposition firebrand Wade.
There was no ndiguel at the Magal this year and observers note that among Senegal's increasingly urbanized and literate population, even the most devout Muslims are less receptive to such an order than two decades ago.
"My marabout guides me along the path to God," Mayoro Dione, a 27-year-old baker, told Reuters in Touba. "But the election - that is my private life and I will choose myself how I vote."
But that is not to say the marabouts' influence is waning.
Islamic scholar Galay Ndiaye argues that despite a fiercely free press and a national literacy rate of close to 50 percent, many Senegalese still fail to draw a clear distinction between the state and the Brotherhoods.
That, together with the caliph's silence, allows marabouts lower down the pecking order to issue their own "ndiguels" with the power to influence the vote in a district or even town.
"The politicians will bring them gifts and encourage them to take part in rallies. It's the market of the little marabouts - we will hear at least 50 little ndiguels," predicted Ndiaye, himself the son of a marabout from the northern town Louga.
NOT YOUR ORDINARY MARABOUT
While many Senegalese are ambivalent about receiving explicit vote orders, the marabouts' status means their endorsement is similar in power to that of the celebrity supporters wheeled out by politicians in Western democracies.
In all big Senegalese towns, black-and-white painted images of marabouts compete for attention with political graffiti sprayed on walls, while their names adorn the battered taxis and buses that make up Senegal's dilapidated transport system.
Aside from the gifts they garner from disciples, many are wealthy businessmen in their own right. The house of a marabout is often recognizable by the loudspeaker piping religious chants to the street, or by the smart Mercedes parked outside.
"The population is becoming more urban, better informed and educated, creating a kind of civic conscience and maturity which has led to a rejection of the ndiguel," said Abdou-Aziz Kebe, an Arabist at the University of Dakar and a prominent Tidiane.
"That said, there is a kind of network function at play which can be of use to the politician, be it by associating with a footballer, a wrestler or a religious leader."
Mansour Sy Djamil - who describes himself as "not your ordinary marabout" - is taking it one step further by running directly for the presidency himself.
The grandson of the first Tidiane caliph in Senegal, Sy argues that Senegal has been let down by generations of career politicians and bemoans weak leadership across Africa.
"Marabouts have been kingmakers for others but their children may well ask 'Why not us?'," Sy, who worked for nearly three decades at the Islamic Development Bank, explained.
"In the street, people come up to me and offer me a gift in return for a prayer. Some even get out of buses to greet me. I don't know of any politician who would not use that popularity, so why should I deprive myself of it?"
"ARISE AND WARN!"
Sy may not win the election but a respectable result could well launch his political career. Although he is an exception, his entry into the race is part of a growing debate about the relationship between politics and the Brotherhoods.
That debate resonates within the Brotherhoods' top echelons, with the Mourides last month organizing a three-day conference on themes such as the link between politics and Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam fundamental to their faith.
Yet it is unlikely any time soon to yield the direct engagement sometimes seen by Christian leaders in Africa and embodied by Desmond Tutu, who as an Anglican bishop in the 1970s was in the vanguard of opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
In mostly Christian Democratic Republic of Congo's chaotic election in November, the Catholic Church not only fielded the largest team of poll observers but ultimately decried incumbent Joseph Kabila's win as spawned by "treachery, lies and terror."
The Bishops' Conference of Senegal's small but influential Christian community has launched a publicity campaign around what it calls the "Ten Commandments" of a fair vote. The first commandment is: "You will vote according to your conscience."
As demonstrators last June threatened to storm parliament in protest at Wade's electoral reform, marabouts were among those who quietly advised the president to step back from the plan, according to widely reported comments from his justice minister.
For Fadel Barro, co-founder of the "Y'en a Marre" ("I've Had Enough") protest movement that has galvanized opposition to Wade among particularly young voters, such backroom interventions by religious leaders will not be enough in the tense weeks to come.
"They have a role to play - they should be up there calling for the preservation of social peace in a non-partisan way," said Barro of the possibility of more unrest around polls which some observers fear will be less than free and fair.
Kebe at the University of Dakar agrees that there was room for the Brotherhoods to have spoken more audibly during those restive few days last year.
Now, as Senegal's faces the biggest test in years to its cherished social peace, he says his appeal to the marabouts echoes that of God to Mohammed in the Koran: "Arise and Warn!"
Picture: Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York September 21, 2011. Photo: Reuters/Chip East
Friday, January 27, 2012
Fatima Hussain is an historian who specializes in the political history of Sufism. She is also an Indian Muslim married to a Pakistani. She talks to Sarah Sikander about the many lines she crosses and uncrosses in her life
In the withering heat of Lahore on a day like any other I found myself in a room that miraculously distracted my attention from the intense feeling of my back melting into its walls. History spoke through them and all the photographs, medals and souvenirs were collective images of nostalgia and tragedy for one could feel the Bhuttos pounding through them. From ZAB's iconic hand-on-the-chin portrait to Benazir's charisma to Nusrat Bhutto's beauty - two generations of Pakistan's first political family. And within these walls I was to meet an Indian, a patriotic Indian.
These walls, and the house by default, was Fakhar Zaman's, the revered Pakistani writer and the current chairperson of the Pakistan Academy of Letters. The purpose of my visit wasn't an interview with Zaman. I was there to meet his wife Fatima Hussain. I didn't have to wait long before she appeared, nervously apologizing for the intensified heat in the absence of electricity. Looking rather fresh for the smoldering temperature, Fatima was one of those rare people who instantly give you a sense of the remarkable conversation ahead.
Born and raised in New Delhi, Fatima graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in 1990 and went on to do Masters in Medieval Indian History. After completing an M Phil in 1994 on the relationship between the Sufi and the state, she completed her doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2002. She is currently working as Associate Professor in the Department of History at University of Delhi.
Fatima's niche is Sufism in its historical and political context. She has authored *The War That Wasn't: The Sufi and the Sultan*, *The Palestine Question: A Historical Perspective* and *Sufism Revisited*.
Why Palestine and Sufism? Because: "My study of Sufism is very political."
She believes diverging into other arenas of historical research is two-fold, it broadens vision and gives you a perspective for your own research. "Reading into other areas is something my teachers always encouraged me to do, which consequently helped me string-up the two."
About the Sufi-State relationship she said: "Sufi is a panacea for the masses not allowing the state to use the religious sentiment as a tool to propel their own aim. In the context of the Sultanate of Delhi, the Sufis were acting as a safety vows. They were allowing the grudges of the masses, muting the voice of dissent. People think the Sultan was everything but it is not true. The Sufi tried to maintain a balance between the relationship between the state and the masses. This implicit support of the Sufi was obviously beneficial for the Sultan. When the situation arose, the Sufi himself became the voice of the people and rebuked the Sultan."
The Sufi, in a way, becomes a buffer zone. He criticizes the Sultan but without the unnecessary violence, a lesson Fatima feels could come in handy in the current socio-political environment.
Fatima feels it is nearly impossible to define a Sufi. "It is a multi-faceted state of mind. A Sufi, predominantly, is a renouncer. If you insist, there are two kinds of Sufis - Ba'shar Sufi and Beshar Sufi, someone who adheres to the Shariah and someone who doesn't."
The conversation veers towards Fatima's marriage to Fakhar Zaman. Despite being married to a Pakistani, Fatima doesn't live in Pakistan. "But I love Pakistan nonetheless."
Asked whether it was as fascinating as it looked on the surface, she replied the idea of an Indian married to a Pakistani wasn't "as fascinating as it sounds and there are many nitty gritties to be resolved."
Does it have anything to do with her being a Muslim in India? "No, I have been a Muslim all my life and I know how to meander my way through that."
"Pakistan is a bad word in India. And when people back home find nothing wrong with me personally they target me from that aspect."
In Old Delhi people aren't threatened by someone like Fatima, but moving around in the South and carrying a good opinion of Pakistan, she is perceived to be threatening because of her position as a teacher. "People are far more tolerant [towards India] in Pakistan."
For the record, Fatima feels the hatred also has a lot to do with personal vendetta rather than the traditional enmity between the two countries.
The conversation turns to the history that joins and disjoins the two countries. History is "never the moral", says Fatima, "because a historian in not a moralist. One should always question, what do I believe? Do I take for granted that this is the truth? Is this even the truth? Where is it coming from? If you question only then will you be able to authenticate."
Fatima sees no reconciliation between India and Pakistan in the near future.
"Propaganda is a very important tool. The fiasco which was orchestrated by the British was also successful because of the potent tool called propaganda which has assumed mammoth proportions. I don't see a solution to the problem in the near future. I might be thinking ahead of my time. National, democratic politics should be built on the notion of mobilizing the masses by political parties. For any party that wants to come into power, it has to convince people that the bourgeoisie's interest is their interest and for this they need propaganda. We are not able to think beyond politicians. We need to look beyond nationalist politics."
"I can present a hunky dory picture but I would be lying. I am at the core of the problem and I face it from both sides. The clerk looks at my bill and says 'Pakistan se bare naqli note a rahe hain.' This is an insult because he knows I am married to a Pakistani. We are also branded as Pakistani, at the time of Kargil they would say go back to Pakistan..."
Now that Fatima has a Pakistani husband, the defense has to be stronger. Her phones are tapped, she is chased by intelligence agencies and there are bugs in her house - all this is routine for her. Fatima plans to stand tall. "It is a psychological game."
Fatima is currently working on a coffee table book on Lahore. "Pakistan is always in the news for all the wrong reasons, so much so that all the positivity is disregarded. Lahore is the heart of Pakistan and embodies the spirit of Pakistan. In terms of food and landscaping, Lahore fascinates me".
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
The Trappist monks of Gethsemani Farms in central Kentucky, USA, bake the most divine fruitcake.
Of course, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Sufi University that was supposed to have started functioning in Bhit Shah,Pakistan, a year ago. But there is food for thought in the holy men’s occupation — could the power of Sufism transform legions of potential Taliban into peaceable chefs, making biryani on order or sweetening palates with fresh rabri?
Perhaps, that’s stretching it.
Yes, the Sufi University is supposed to do wonders for inculcating the values of religious and cultural tolerance by teaching Sufi thought to our restless youth. But other subjects too are presumably on the menu — after all, the title of the law approved by the Sindh governor for the setting up of the university is The University of Sufism and Modern Sciences in the Bhit Shah Bill, 2011.
Unfortunately, progress on the institute has been tediously slow, and to make matters worse, the expected funds from the Turkish government have yet to materialise. The Sindh government’s own pockets are empty on account of the flooding caused by torrential rains this year. So unless the saints give their blessings, this mega project – the initial cost of which is estimated to be more than 65 million rupees – may go the way of other grand schemes before it.
Meanwhile, how far will one Sufi university, that too in the heartland of Sufism, go in spreading the message of peace?
For better results, perhaps the provincial governments should consider revising the contents of school textbooks to encourage a more pluralistic outlook and a more tolerant worldview.
You can’t expect generations of students brought up on biased, often hate-filled, texts at schools and colleges to suddenly turn the other cheek in university.
Monday, January 23, 2012
Gifted with ‘abilities' par excellence
The Bharatanatyam performance on wheel-chairs and yoga by physically challenged persons mesmerise audience
Clothed in white long skirts and hat of camel's hair, they danced the quintessential ‘dervish dance' with an ease characteristic of seasoned professionals.
And to the soothing Sufi tunes, they whirled unmindful of all distractions. This and more they did, amid a shaken audience, on wheelchairs indispensible to them.
Differently-abled, but barely disabled, they also performed the classical Bharatanayam and yoga, all on their wheelchairs, at the ‘Celebrating Abilities' show, organised here on Tuesday.
Trained under Syed Sallaudin Pasha at the ‘Abilities Unlimited' foundation, the group has been acclaimed nationally and internationally and has also held world records.
While the feat of the physically challenged was one unseen and unheard of, another of its kind presented at the show was the classical dance recital by the hearing impaired. Although unable to gather a single note of the music played, they danced as a group with incredible coordination and perfection.
“I undertook such training for them in therapeutic dance to provide equal opportunities to Persons with Disabilities in the field of arts and culture where they barely have a presence despite being extremely gifted in their own way,” said Guru Pasha (Ph.9811340308).
Besides opening a new segment of employment for them, his foundation has also been offering courses in classical dance, dance and movement therapy, stage lighting, photography and film making, editing, sound recording and animation for PWDs.
To showcase the strength and ability of the physically challenged in overcoming their inability, the show had been organised by the Astah ladies organisation.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
A new retrospective shows how far Palestinian art has come: The Walid Abu Shakra retrospective − being held simultaneously at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and in Umm al-Fahm − reflects the London-based artist’s longings for his childhood.
"Mintarat al-Batten,” a retrospective showcasing the work of Palestinian artist Walid Abu Shakra, is one of the most fascinating political events in the history of Israel art in general and Palestinian art in particular. It is taking place simultaneously in two parts, in two locations: in the gallery established by the artist’s brother Said 16 years ago in their hometown of Umm al-Fahm, and at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
The first part of “Mintarat al-Batten” opened a few weeks ago. It both represents the closing of a circle, and also places on the agenda the importance of the museum of Palestinian art that is slated to be built in Umm al-Fahm. The show in the Tel Aviv Museum, which opened on January 5, on the other hand, not only makes amends for something that should have been done long ago, but also constitutes an important promise that we hope will be kept: to continue to research and expose such key artists, and to exhibit the next generations of Palestinian art.
“A Palestinian, by essence, is made from the lost culture, from the dialectic relationship with memory and with the foreign culture on which he draws, and at the same time criticizes. The lost, expropriated time, like culture and as part of it, continues to exist in the consciousness and memory of life here and there, as if refusing to acknowledge the parting,” wrote Hanna Farah-Kufer Birim in the catalog of the exhibition “Men in the Sun” that he curated with Tal Ben Zvi about two years ago in the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, which showcased 12 Palestinian artists.
Walid Abu Shakra was born in Umm al-Fahm in 1946, and subsequently moved to England, where he has lived for over three decades. Although he says he has thrived on the bright gray light and the heavy fog there, he adds that he feels he never really left Umm al-Fahm, which has been at the heart of his work all these years.
When asked about his hometown and his relationship with it, Abu Shakra expresses mixed feelings: a sense of longing when he is far away in cold England, and on the other hand, the realization from his many visits that there has been accelerated destruction of the familiar landscape. The shattering of a dream.
Abu Shakra’s exhibition is called “Mintarat al-Batten.” Al-Batten is one of the central hills in the Umm al-Fahm area which, due to its strategic location, became the site of a watchtower (mintarat) overlooking the surrounding fields and farms. “For us, the members of the Abu Shakra family, Mintarat al-Batten has tremendous personal symbolic meaning,” explains Said. And Walid adds: “As a child I spent hours there, days and nights. You could see the rising and setting of the sun and the moon there.”
As opposed to his first and only exhibition in the city 40 years ago, in the local council building − which was attended only by a few people aside from family members − several hundred people attended the opening of the new show at the gallery.
“It was like a festival for me,” says Abu Shakra excitedly. “I hope that what I am trying to give here will influence them − that all my friends, family and residents of the village who came to see the work will show more love and seriousness in their attitude toward the landscape that remains in the village.”
On display in the gallery are drawings, paintings and etchings by Abu Shakra, which range from the early years of his career in the 1960s to a new series of prints that he created as an artist’s album, in a limited edition. In the Tel Aviv museum, on the other hand, only etchings are on show.
The exhibition in Umm al-Fahm tells the story of the artist and his career, as well as the story of the city. It focuses on various aspects in the landscape, both alive and abandoned: the view from al-Batten, olive groves in bloom alongside felled trees, prickly pears and plowed fields. Occasionally one can see vestiges of old abandoned stone houses, swallowed up by the general landscape. He also makes you feel you are present in the place for which the work is named.
Farid Abu Shakra, who is curating the two exhibitions (in Tel Aviv together with Irith Hadar), explains: “Abu Shakra’s works use names that the locals use among themselves: ‘Mintarat al-Batten,’ ‘Hashem’s Garden,’ ‘Al-Minjara Area,’ and so on. On the one hand the artist wanted to introduce his country, its beauty and magic to a foreign audience. On the other he wanted to express the original names of the places, the buildings, the fields and the vineyards where he spent his childhood, as though just by uttering these names he is inhaling the air of the homeland, the fragrance of jasmine and his longing for the past.”
The seed of the retrospective was planted 15 years ago, when the late Prof. Mordechai Omer, veteran curator and director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, visited the Abu Shakra home in Umm al-Fahm. Not much happened during that visit. But four years ago, Omer visited Farid in his studio in the artists’ workshops in Herzliya. Their relationship developed and they began meeting regularly. After a year and a half of visits and trips, Omer asked Farid to make some suggestions for shows. “My first suggestion to him was a retrospective for Walid,” recalls Farid.
Walid and his brothers regretted that Omer passed away before the opening of the show. Indeed, he had had complete confidence in Farid and even agreed to hold the exhibition simultaneously in Umm al-Fahm. Farid and Said compiled an outstanding exhibition catalog designed by Palestinian designer Wael Wakim, which begins in Arabic.
‘Part of all of them’
Walid Abu Shakra, along with Abed Abdi, who is four years his senior, and Bashir Abu-Rabia, were the first Palestinian artists to study in Israeli schools, and eventually went abroad. Their choices and their daring paved the way for the younger generations.
In the catalog for “Men in the Sun,” Antoine Shalhat writes about the cultural consequences of the occupation, and the expulsion of Arab villages in 1948: “Among the victims of that war were a group of artists and intellectuals, including quite a few authors and poets, playwrights and painters, who had already achieved a considerable reputation. However, the greater part of those remaining were peasants, concentrated in their villages. This distribution indicates something about the meaningful changes undergone by the socioeconomic structure of the Palestinian community remaining in Israel, but also about what this change meant for the community’s culture and art, implications that we can compare to the outcomes of a particularly strong earthquake.”
For his part, Walid began drawing in kindergarten for himself and later became the “class artist.” Afterward he attended a high school in Afula, where an art-history class brought him to the point of no return, as he puts it. When he was 16-years-old, his father went bankrupt and Walid had to leave school to help support the family. He went to Tel Aviv, lived in a little shack in Jaffa with his cousin, and worked at three jobs simultaneously: In the early morning he worked in a bakery; at noon in a pizzeria; and in the evenings at a restaurant on Dizengoff Street. He remembers the period as extremely difficult: “I remember huge mice running under my broken-down bed.”
That year, 1964, he was contacted by an acquaintance who told him there was a position open for a tax official in Hadera; he submitted a request and was accepted.
“During the period when I worked there, I lived in a rented room in the home of Fania and Aryeh Kochok, a wonderful couple who were like parents to me, and I took art courses with Yoram Rozov. I also traveled to Haifa once a week to study at Beit Hagefen (the Arab Jewish Cultural Center).”
Meanwhile, Abu Shakra’s passion for painting became stronger by the day. He registered at the Avni Institute of Art and Design in Tel Aviv, and studied with Yaakov Wechsler, Moshe Propes, Avshalom Okashi, Yehezkel Streichman and others.
“The socialization process undergone by Palestinian artists who study in Israeli academic institutions displays several post-colonial characteristics: first, the language of study – Hebrew – forces the artist to develop his/her creative modes of expression in a foreign linguistic setting; second, the curricular habitus − its cultural and artistic context − is firmly anchored between the Western and the Israeli art worlds, excluding the Palestinian artist’s culture; third, being a national field, despite its universalist aspiration, the Israeli art field tends to regard Palestinian artists as ‘other,’” wrote Tal Ben Zvi in the catalog for “Men in the Sun.”
Abu Shakra: “I didn’t think too much about the aspects of who and what. I felt I was a part of all of them. I liked my teachers, they were good, every one of them gave me something.” Still, he adds, he never gave up the local habitus − the cultural and artistic characteristics that he is closest to. Even later on, when he used abstraction, which was then of course the Israeli bon ton, he preserved certain prominent Palestinian cultural elements.
“The abstract works created by Walid Abu Shakra when he finished his studies at the Avni Institute, which are full of life’s tribulations and the difficulties of supporting a family of seven, were mandatory,” writes Farid in the catalog of the present exhibition.
At the gallery show, one can see the transition from the quick drawings executed in Nablus, Acre, Beit She’arim and Jenin, in which he focused on urban motifs, to abstract and geometrical structures and forms − while at the same time the artist maintained structural shapes identified with mosques, arches and minarets.
“I was attracted by the elements, the shapes in the windows, the adornments, and with them I created new compositions and preserved Middle Eastern color,” the artist explains.
As opposed to his colleagues at Avni and the dominant artistic trend during those years, Abu Shakra did not stop dealing with the concrete, with his immediate surroundings. In addition to the landscape of Umm al-Fahm, he described life there as well.
Says his brother Said: “The days when we walked around together in the courtyards of Umm al-Fahm to photograph and document everything are etched in me. With his camera he captured community life, the marvelous childhood of the neighborhood children, the elderly of the community and everything that created the local culture of that time. He captured the human experience, which has been preserved to this day thanks to his work.”
Walid Abu Shakra and his English girlfriend lived in Hadera for a while, and his work was exhibited in group shows in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “In 1972 I participated in a group exhibition in Gallery 220 in Tel Aviv and sold a painting to a family in Holon. With that money I was able to travel to Europe. We went for six months and toured various places, met my partner’s parents in England and decided to get married. I entered Saint Martin [London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design] with a portfolio of drawings and several etchings I had done in Avni with my teacher Tuvia Beeri, and they accepted me for two years. I returned to Israel with a letter from them and received a stipend from the Education Ministry.”
Abu Shakra says it wasn’t easy for the family to accept his emigration. “Before I left I gave the family enough money for a certain amount of time, so there would be no obstacles for me to deal with. My mother was good and understanding, but my father was more skeptical.”
In London, however, Abu Shakra flourished: He didn’t stop working and participating in exhibitions in England and Europe, he became a member of the Precious Metal Clay Guild, the British Printing Society and the Royal Society of British Artists. In 1974 he and his family moved to Weybridge, Surrey; he purchased a printing press and installed a workshop in his home.
“Sometimes it was hard to live far away. I missed Mother and my siblings, I came to visit, for several months each time,” he says now.
When his children (now in their thirties) were born, it became more difficult to visit. In general, Abu Shakra says, “Every time I came the disappointment was greater. Every year I would come with money to build a house here, and because of the changes in the place I would return empty-handed.”
After a long time in England, far from home, he says he found consolation in the writings of Nazim Al-Haqqani and other prominent Sufi figures. He became so involved in reading these works that he set his art aside. Walid is not the only Sufi in the family, incidentally; his paternal grandmother also was, and had a great influence on him. “She was a special woman, blind, her hands were blessed,” he says warmly.
“I’m not a fanatic. It was exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t that I had planned to stop the art, it’s just that sometimes there’s a container and you can only put as much water in it as it can hold. Apparently the place in my heart was filled with spirituality; I wanted to find more within myself. I didn’t know how to express myself, and Sufism gave me the answer. For me Sufism is a way of life. To be a person with a big heart.”
But his affair with art was not completely over. When his mother fell ill and was on her deathbed she turned to him. “She didn’t talk much, she wasn’t the type to give orders and tell people what to do. She was quiet and full of love. We understood her without words. When I came to visit her, she asked me to return to art. Apparently at the time I was also ready to do that.”
Picture: Walid Abu Shakra at the Umm al-Fahm gallery. 'He captured the human experience, which has been preserved to this day thanks to his work,' says his brother Said. Photo: Moshe Shai. [Click on the title to the original article with more pictures.]
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Sufi orders announce participation in 25 January celebrations
The Sufi orders, on Thursday, announced they would participate in the 25 January celebration to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that toppled the ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Abdel Hadi al-Qasby, head of the Sufi orders, told al-Masry al-Youm that they agreed with the Islamist, political and popular forces to participate in the 25 January celebrations in order to show that the revolution continues and to revive its spirit in Tahrir Square.
“We are keen on the unity of the fabric of Egyptian society,” said Qasby.
He also said the celebrations should be peaceful. “We are against the destruction of public institutions,” he added.
For his part, Essam Mohy, secretary general of the Sufi-oriented Tahrir Al-Masry Party, said his party is participating to demand the handover of power to a civilian authority.
On Monday, 54 political parties and movements called for country-wide protests on 25 January to demand a swift transfer of power from military to civilian authorities.
In a statement, the groups listed their demands, including the handover of power to an elected president by April, the release of all activists in detention, the end to military trials for civilians and the approval of minimum and maximum wage limits.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
A nearly 700-year-old plot in the heart of Jerusalem that has been flying the Tricolour since 1947 and offering a home to visiting Indian pilgrims has got a fresh lease of life. Foreign minister S.M. Krishna yesterday announced $25,000 (about Rs 13 lakh) in assistance to the Indian Hospice, which has been fighting repeated encroachment attempts and facing financial constraints. Standing on 7000sqm of prime land, the hospice was founded in the 13th century after a visit by Sufi saint Baba Farid. The money Krishna has announced will go towards setting up a Baba Farid Heritage Centre there. The hospice will also be given maintenance funds annually. “We have ensured that the hospice will continue to fly the Indian Tricolour and offer accommodation to Indians visiting Jerusalem,” a foreign ministry source said.
Since 1924, the hospice called Zawiya al-Hindiya has been run as a charitable trust by a family with roots in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. It hosted Indian soldiers during World War II and India-Palestine meetings in recent years. It continues to offer rooms to Indians of all faiths visiting Jerusalem. So far, the hospice has survived with intermittent Indian government and non-government help. But it has been in need of funds for renovation. Its caretakers have, however, spurned offers of help from Israelis and Palestinians for fear of complications that may arise if it loses its Indian character.
Baba Farid, who hailed from Punjab, had visited Jerusalem 700 years ago while on a journey to explore Islam (sic) [Sufi News ed. (most likely) a journey through the Islamic world either during or after his pilgrimage to Mecca]. The then governor of the Ottoman Empire had offered him two rooms to stay. These rooms grew into a holy site for Indian pilgrims over time and expanded into the hospice as it exists today. It is a short walk from Jerusalem’s holiest sites. The hospice has served as a stop for generations of pilgrims who visit Jerusalem on their way back from Haj. During World War II, it served as a camp for the 4th Indian Division of the British Army.
In 2000, it hosted a meeting between then foreign minister Jaswant Singh and Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini. The site was selected after the Israelis reportedly made it inconvenient for the delegations to meet at another spot fixed earlier. The hospice also houses a UN medical centre for Palestinian refugees.
The custodian of the hospice is Sheikh Mohammad Munir Ansari. His father had come from Saharanpur on an invite from the Palestinians. The Ansari family has had to turn to the Indian embassy to prevent encroachments. Their Indian identity has helped them keep away from local politics. The hospice has photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi and Khilafat Movement leaders who visited Jerusalem. The hospice went through difficult times when India and Israel did not have diplomatic ties. At that time, non-governmental and individual donations helped it survive.
Officials said things improved after 1992 when India and Israel established diplomatic relations. Then help from New Delhi became regular. Krishna’s funds announcement would keep the hospice safe from people who want to usurp the prime plot it stands on, foreign ministry sources said. Krishna also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem. He stopped by the cemetery for Indian soldiers, which contains graves of 79 Indian servicemen of World War I.
Monday, January 16, 2012
At the Urs in Bhit Shah
Bhit Shah: Desperate to find her mentally handicapped missing daughter, an elderly Baloch woman, Ganj Bakht, has come to the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai.
Despite the weather being bitterly cold, she is staying in the open courtyard of the shrine along with many other women.
“I am a Sawali and have come here to ask Bhitai to find my daughter Shah Bibi,” she said as she wrapped herself in a sheet of cloth to protect herself from the cold which increased in its severity after the sunset of the 13th of Safar – the day the three-day Urs of Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai began.
Her daughter was in her mid 30s when she went missing, she said.
Ameer Hamza, a small restaurant owner in Ghotki district, has brought a goat to be sacrificed on the morning of 14th Safar. “We will distribute the lungar here as a mark of respect to our Murshid, he said, adding that he had been performing this ritual for a long time.
Till Wednesday men, women and children had converged at the shrine in Bhit Shah, a small town in Matiari district, to celebrate the 268th Urs.
The first Dhamal, according to Syed Aneesul Hasnain alias Faqeer Juman Shah, marks the beginning of the Urs which officially opens on Monday morning.
Elderly Fida Hussain Brohi has a different story to share. “I want my son out of prison,” he said. He will pray at the shrine for his son’s release.
Hundreds of thousands of devotees turn up at the shrine to pay homage during the three-day Urs. Many of them who have already come are staying in the courtyard of the shrine and burning firewood to keep themselves warm.
For the fourth consecutive year the devotees will not be able to visit Takht Gah – the abode of Bhitai – because it is in a dilapidated condition. A portion of it caved in three years ago.
“If we allow visitors there it will collapse and might lead to casualties,” said Mazhar Ali Shah alias Nazan Sain, brother of the shrine’s Sajjada Nasheen Syed Nisar Hussain.
He said the antiquities department did not pay attention to it. “We were told that Rs5.5 million was sought from the Auqaf department but it has not been given,” he said.
There are cracks at different places in the shrine’s structure. According to a shrine’s employee, Nawab Lanjwani, a mere touch will cause the affected part to collapse.
The shrine – built around 345 years agoneeds extension to accommodate the large number of devotees. Structure of the shrine needs refurbishment because recent heavy monsoon rains caused serious damage, causing cracks in Lakhi gate, Wazoo Khana and other places.
Some repairs have been carried out in patches and some refurbishing has been done. During recent rains, the roof built with woods started leaking. Devotees cramped into a Musafir Khana built in 1964, but it could not accommodate them.
Annual budget allocation for Lungar in Musafir Khana is quite inadequate. Last year Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah promised that one fourth of the annual income from nazrana (donations) at the shrine would be allocated for distribution of food among devotees, but according to Mazhar Ali Shah, the promise is yet to be met.
“We pursued it but there has been no progress,” he said.
Picture: A devotee prays at Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai's shrine. Photo: Hussain Afzal/Dawn.com
[Click on the title to the original article with many more photos.]
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Religious leaders should impart Sufi teachings to end terror, suggests Sardar Yaqoob Khan
Lahore: President Sardar Muhammad Yaqoob Khan here yesterday at the inaugural session of two-day Syed Hajver Tasawwaf Seminar organized in connection with 968th annual Urs of Hazrat Data
Gunj Buksh at Punjab University, stressed the religious leaders to come forward and impart knowledge on teachings of Sufism to the youth as this could have been effective way of overcoming terrorism and extremism in the society.
The seminar was organized in joint collaboration of Punjab University’s Department of Arabic and Provincial Ministry of Religious Affairs and Auqaf.
With having Provincial Minister for Religious Affairs and Auqaf Haji Ehsan-ud-Din Qureshi as the chief guest, Minister for Mines Ch Abdul Ghafoor and Punjab University Vice Chancellor Prof Dr. Mujahid Kamran, Secretary Religious Affairs and Auqaf Muazffar Mehmood also marked their presence in the seminar.
Speaking on the occasion, the AJ&K president said that the charismatic personality of Hazrat Data Gunj Bakhsh was a model for our guidance as even people of other religions also respected him. He said Data Gunj Bakhsh played a key role in guiding the masses towards the path of peace and love with humanity.
He was of the view that Sufis played foundational role in spread of Islam in the sub-continent. Referring to the present crisis the country was facing despite being an atomic power, he said that the enemies could never harm Pakistan due to the presence of such pious personalities of Sufis.
Adding further to his comments, Sardar Yaqoob said that Kashmiris were not only protecting the ideological boundaries of Pakistan, but they were also ready to sacrifice their lives for the country.
Expressing his views on the occasion, Prof Dr. Mujahid Kamran said that after Prophets, there were Sufis who had taken people out of the darkness of ignorance through their acts and teachings. He highlighted the fact that these were the Sufis who converted hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims to Muslims in the Sub-Continent.
At the end, the Vice Chancellor of the University also underscored the importance of holding such seminars on large scale so as awareness about the lives and teachings of Sufis could be spread among students and the youth.
Saturday, January 14, 2012
SBY Challenges Muslims to Prove Islam is Peaceful
Malang, East Java: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, speaking on Wednesday at a a large Muslim Sufi order in Bululawang, East Java, called on Muslims to prove that Islam can live in harmony with a pluralistic nation and in a democratic society.
Yudhoyono made the call while opening the congress of the Jam’iyyah Ahlilth Thariqah Al-Mu’tabarah An-Nahdliyah (Jatman), a large Muslim Sufi order in Bululawang, East Java.
“Let us prove to the world that in Indonesia there is no discordance between religion and the state, between Islam and democracy. Islam can answer the various problems of nations and the world. Islam can become a blessing for the universe,” Yudhoyono told the thousands of people attending the congress.
He praised the Sufi’s approach, saying it was religious, calm and educative in broaching problems and therefore a suitable way to deal with disputes, conflicts and clashes in society and the nation.
“We all know that the Indonesian nation is a pluralistic one, it’s wishes and aspirations are numerous and varied,” he said, adding that in such a dynamic environment, clashes and conflict could erupt at any time.
The president called on all Muslims to abide by the four pillars of the state and nation. He cited them as the unitary nature of the country; the state ideology, Pancasila, which puts all religions on equal footing; the 1945 Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and of worship; and the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) .
“As Muslims, let us lead a religious life. As citizens, let us implement those four pillars,” Yudhoyono said.
Yudhoyono’s government has been criticized by rights activists as failing to protect the rights of the minority and the freedom of religion or worship.
The country has in recent years been the site of attacks on minority sects and minority religions, with the perpetrators often receiving only light sentences, if any.
Yudhoyono, who was accompanied by his wife Ani, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, and other ministers, officials and religious leaders, is touring East Java for four days.
Abdul Mujib Sadzili, the secretary of the congress’ organizing committee, said that 10,800 people had registered for the event, but said that many more people were taking part in it.
Jatman is one of the key Sufi orders in the Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Islamic organization, which has about 40 million members. The event was held at one of its boarding schools.
Picture: President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, speaking on Wednesday at a a large Muslim Sufi order in Bululawang, East Java, called on Muslims to prove that Islam can live in harmony with a pluralistic nation and in a democratic society. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali is pictured on the right. Photo: Antara Photo.
Friday, January 13, 2012
‘I feel we are all aliens’: Playback singer and musician Rabbi Shergill, who was in Hyderabad for an unplugged show, says that he is still searching for “India” in Indian music.
Rabbi, who rose to limelight with Bulla Ki Jaana in 2005, is among the new wave of artistes who blend Western influences with Indian roots. He incorporates Sufi and Punjabi elements with rock in his music.
“Music is about adapting influences to your context. It’s about putting a little bit of India in it, like adding a little bit of our spices,”
says the musician influenced by the likes of Led Zeppelin.
But the disappointment is evident when Rabbi speaks of the current music trends. “Indian bands and musicians need to grow beyond Western influences. Most of our artistes are English-speaking elites who use hard-core Western instruments like the guitar. I am waiting to see a band that uses all Indian instruments and all Indian elements. I am in search of ‘India’ now.”
But this doesn’t mean a rigid classical form limited to Kabir bhajans and spiritual content, he cautions. The music still needs to be new. Rabbi does admit that it is the price one pays for a colonial past and an education system that keeps people away from their own languages.
“Sometimes, I feel we are all aliens. Commerce dictates how we live and India has become the receptionist of the world and we have a fragmented collective psyche while fighting a collective war.”
After his stint as an independent composer, Rabbi moved to Bollywood and worked on movies like Delhi Heights. He, however, does not believe that Bollywood clips the composers’ artistic wings in any way.
“There is enough creative freedom in the industry. Take A.R. Rahman, Shankar Ehsaan Loy, they are all bringing out cutting edge sounds,” he says.
Singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill: A graduate from Delhi’s Khalsa College, Rabbi was part of the local hard-rock music scene in his graduation days. Inspired by Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Jimmy Page, Rabbi started writing his own songs and made a few demos too.
“I grew up in the 80’s, when the whole concept of western was like a zenith and one could not escape being a wannabe.”
He saw Springsteen perform in Delhi and after that, he says, “I always wanted to be him.”
Rabbi dropped out of his management course in the first year itself. “I went to school just to please my mother and like all the Punjabi parents, even she had academic aspirations for me. I went along with it but deep down I hated it. And so, I dropped out of it and started creating music,” he recalls.
I’m no Sufi singer
Defining his music, Rabbi clarifies, “Sufi is a misnomer for my music. I have just sung one Sufi song! My music is ‘rock and roll’ and ‘funk’ and I always keep thinking of ways to implement the funk into them.”
His latest album ‘Ganga’ also has a few of these elements. The album is all about a guy singing to a girl and telling her not to be deterred by the world and do her own thing. Listing his contemporary favourites, he reveals,
“I love Shruti Haasan, I think she is a decent musician. I really like John Mayer. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s music and a Bengali singer called Mou.”
Commenting on the rock culture scene in India, he opines, “Kids at college just learn to play guitar and form rock bands, which stick for a year or two. Then they either split or get into Bollywood. A lot of their music is not compelling, which is why they don’t last long.”
Thinking out of box
Explaining his creative process, he says, “I’m constantly trying to understand how I can step out of my own box. I think about all the things I want to talk about, get an idea and then somehow, magically some line appears. You can have a general idea about how to get there, but ultimately, it’s just pure magic.”
Rabbi’s flair for poetry can be traced back to his mother, who is a Punjabi poetess. “Her poetry is amazing and yes, there’s a lot of poetry in my songs, which I would like to be considered as something that aspires to be poetry,” he explains.
Rabbi has given music for a Bollywood film, ‘Delhi Heights’. Though he loves composing original music tracks, he says performing has always been his first love. “Making music for films is a different area and I like doing it. But, performing will always be my first love. It depends on how things work out,” he adds.
Stint with Dewarists
Sharing his experience on the music show called the ‘Dewarists’, Rabbi recalls, “It was a fantastic experience and singing with Papon was an amazing experience. It was set in a very beautiful location in Kaziranga. I guess it will be one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”
And like the romantics of old, he believes we are increasingly living in an artificial world. “We have to get out on to the streets, live in nature and discover ourselves. Big cities act like a pump that drains out everything. It is very irreconcilable,” he points out.
Music and drugs
Expressing his views on musicians, who die of drug overdose, Rabbi says, “We have had many great musicians in the past, who have died of drug overdose, which is really sad. Even I need a relaxed state of mind to write songs. I like my scotch and have never done drugs. I think it’s too much work.”
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Revnak: A Turkish Sufi music group that shines the spotlight on women
Sufi music (Islamic religious music) has been perceived as a man’s domain -- all semazens (whirling dervishes), the most renowned composers and the most successful performers of Sufi music have traditionally been men.
This understanding is surely the reason that women have taken a back seat in Sufi music. However, for eight years a group has existed that aims to change this perception. The name of the group is Revnak.
Revnak is a group that has its origins in the Mevlana Education and Culture Association and was founded in 1999. While the objective of the association was to serve as a Sufi music and sema (whirling) center for males, things changed in 2003.
Among the founders of this group was Birsen Çakmut, a Turkish classical music artist. She decided to organize a music group that only consisted of women. To this end, she got in touch with friends from her time as a student at the İstanbul University State Conservatory. Next she contacted her fellow artists and, one by one, she gathered the people who love Sufi music.
Revnak comprises 15 people. Six are saz (a stringed instrument) players and nine are singing artists. Almost all of them were educated in a conservatory.
This high level of musical knowledge enables them to select whichever song they like and work on it individually. They present their songs in the various Mevlevihanes (a lodge of the Mevlevi dervishes), in events organized by municipalities and also in concerts. A sema ritual takes place on the stage while they sing.
Although Çakmut points out that the interest in Sufism has increased in recent years, she mentions that Sufi groups consisting of women don’t draw much attention. Çakmut thinks this is partially because of their gender and partially because some people disapprove of them for making Sufi music. Çakmut states that she would prefer giving a concert to viewers who are only women, if she had the choice.
Aynur Demir is the group’s neyzen (reed flute player). She came to know Sufi music when she was 30 years old. At the time she was studying at university, which she began attending as a mother of two. She still has the same feelings that she had the first day she heard the sound of the ney (reed flute).
On the year that Demir entered the faculty of divinity of Marmara University she heard the sound of a ney coming from a classroom and followed the sound upstairs. She could not stop herself from standing in the doorway and listening to it. She has now been playing the ney for 15 years.
Demir describes what it is like to play the ney: “There is peace in this music. I feel as if I’m praying to God relentlessly. It is as if my heart is always mentioning God.”
Another member of Revnak is Lale Duğa. Her family supports her interest in Sufi music and she has a very strong connection with the music. She plays the classical kemençe (a small three-stringed violin) and she has been a music teacher for 17 years.
In 1982, Duğa began playing the classical kemençe, which produces the melodies that give soul to Sufi music. Aside from minor breaks, Duğa has played the kemençe ever since.
Seda Tüfekçioğlu is the kudüm (a small double drum) player, which means bright and shiny. Tüfekçioğlu learned to play the kudüm in the conservatory of the Bursa Metropolitan Municipality while she was studying chemistry at Uludağ University. After she returned to her hometown of İstanbul, she continued playing the kudüm.
After working as a chemist for three years in İstanbul, she received her master’s degree and continued to pursue her PhD in the department of religious music of Marmara University’s faculty of divinity.
Tüfekçioğlu mentions that she has become much closer to God and acquired a very different mood thanks to Sufi music. She said that ever since she began playing Sufi music and performing music with divine melodies that remind one of God, she performs much better and with deep feeling.
Picture: Group Revnak. Photo: Sunday's Zaman.
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Abu Said ibn Abi Al Khair, a 11th-century Sufi mystic, came from the Persian town of Mayhana. Studying under Abu Ali Zihir and Husain al-Sulami, he confessed that efforts to achieve spirituality with intellectual proof had failed. He spent seven years alone in the mountain deserts of Mayhana.
He established a Sufi centre for those who wished to walk the mystic path preaching, “Sufism is the subsistence of the heart without any meditation”.
Abu Said reached perfection by ridding himself of any individuality. He once visited a place where people had collected for mourning. The arrival of the visitors was announced with their respective titles of honour. When the hosts enquired of his title, the mystic replied, “Go and tell them that Nobody, the son of Nobody has arrived.”
He preached that there were as many ways to reach God as there are created beings, but the shortest path was to serve people and bring happiness to their hearts.
The mystic was once travelling with his disciples when they came across a mill. Listening to the sound of the mill, he asked the companions what the mill was saying. When they shook their heads, he said, “It is saying ‘Like the Sufi, I receive the coarse and give it back refined, I travel around myself and in myself so that I dispel what I do not need’.”
One day Abu Said was told of a person who could walk on water. He replied, “That is simple. A frog and a mosquito can walk on water too.”
He then heard of a man who could fly. He commented, “That too is simple. A fly and a raven can also fly.”
Later he heard of a person who could travel from one city to another in the wink of an eye. He said, “Satan can travel from East to West in one breath.”
Abu Said asserted that these abilities were of no value, and that a true human being is one who interacts with society but does not forget God even for a moment.
Abu Said invented the poetic form of Rubai, the quatrain, to illustrate spiritual ideas. He is the first Sufi to use poetry as a medium of instruction to his disciples.
He wrote the verse inscribed on his tomb in Mayhana:
Love flowed like blood beneath the skin, through veins
Emptied me of myself, filled me with the Beloved
Till every limb, every organ was seized and occupied
Till only my name remains, the rest is It.
I beg, nay charge Thee: Write on my gravestone
‘This was love’s bondsman,’ that’s when I am gone
Some wretch well versed in passion’s ways may sigh
And give me greetings, as he passes by.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
The Conference of the Birds: Czech illustrator Peter Sís brings ancient Persian poem to life
Peter Sís has done it again. The internationally renowned Czech illustrator, born in Brno in 1949, but based in the United States since 1982, has recently released his latest publication, The Conference of the Birds, a beautiful, condensed visual version of the eponymous, 4,500-line epic poem by the ancient Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar.
The book is a delight both visually and conceptually, and is an apt addition to Sís' oeuvre, which includes, most recently, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, which won him both the Boston Globe Horn Book Award and the New York Times Book Review's Best Illustrated Book of the Year Award, his sixth.
The story follows the adventures of the poet Attar himself, who one day dreams he is a hoopoe bird. The hoopoe calls a conference of the birds to tell them they must seek out the king bird, Simorgh, who lives on the mountain of Kaf, for only he will be able to solve all of the problems the birds face in the world. Despite some resistance, from the duck for example, who is afraid to leave the comfort of his pond, the scores of birds set off on their quest for Simorgh.
But, like all quests, theirs is not easy. First, they must fly through seven valleys, of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement and Death, until finally, after many trials and tribulations, they reach the mountain of Kaf, where something wondrous happens.
Despite the visionary, imaginative nature of Attar's poem, the real stars of The Conference of the Birds are Sís and his delightful illustrations. The book itself is handsome, and no expense has been spared on the hard cover and the beautiful, textured paper on which the poem and Sís' illustrations are printed. But one gets the feeling that even if the book were printed on napkins, these illustrations, in ink and watercolor, would stand out regardless.
Lush and perfectly detailed, Sís' artwork makes The Conference of the Birds a rare bird: a book that will please children with its story and its illustrations, yet one that is equally appropriate for adults. Attar's poem is simple enough for children to understand yet has spiritual and existential implications that even the most cynical adult readers will find difficult to ignore.
While Sís' previous books have told, in fine style, stories of his own making and the stories of others, it would seem that with this epic poem he has found the perfect medium for his particular skill as an illustrator. At the same time, his artwork brings the poem to life in a way that previously could only be imagined.
Abu Hamid bin Abu Bakr Ibrahim (1145-1221), better known by his pen name, Farid Ud-Din Attar, or simply "the perfumer," owing to his job working as a perfumer, is widely considered the finest Persian poet of the Sufi tradition.
The son of a prominent chemist in Nishapur, a major city in the medieval region of Khorasan, which is now located in the northeast of Iran, Attar received a first-class education and later took over from his father in the chemist shop, before abandoning his work and traveling widely across the Middle East to Asia, where he met with the Sufi master Shaykhs and returned home a devout Sufi.
Attar is well-known in the Arab world for his long narrative poems of conceptual and verbal ingenuity, mostly promoting the teachings of Sufism, a mystic branch of Islam that focuses on turning away from worldly possessions and aspirations and devoting one's life completely to a metaphysical relationship with God. "The Conference of the Birds" is considered one of Attar's finest works of literature.
In 2003, Sís was awarded a MacArthur Award, also known as "a genius grant," which entitles its winners - none of whom can apply for the award - to $500,000 over a period of five years. While such wealth is a far cry from the spiritual poverty preached by Attar and other Sufis, it would seem that Sís has made fine use of his time.
The Conference of the Birds is a delight for readers young and old, and the beauty and depth of the poem is amply matched, even enhanced, by Sís' brilliant illustrations.
The Conference of the Birds
By Peter Sís
The Penguin Press
159 pages, USD 13.97
[Picture from Amazon]
Monday, January 09, 2012
The Novato-based International Association of Sufism will award $250 to the winning poet in its Songs of the Soul Poetry Contest, which takes place this month.
The group will accept poems from high school students and adults through Jan. 31. The theme is "The Natural Rhythm of Wisdom," and poems should reflect sacred wisdom or the wisdom of nature.
The prize will be $100 for second place and $50 for third place. Winners will read their poems at the Songs of the Soul Poetry and Sacred Music Festival, which takes place March 16-18 at the Embassy Suites Hotel in San Rafael.
For entry forms and information call 472-6959 or visit www.ias.org and click on "Songs of the Soul."
Sunday, January 08, 2012
Khartoum: The head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani defended his party’s decision to join the cabinet saying that it was necessary to save the country.
In prepared remarks read out to supporters by his son Ja’afar, on Sudan’s 56th anniversary of independence, al-Mirghani said that ’loud’ voices seeking to label the DUP as a ’betrayer’ will not succeed in creating confusion within the party ranks.
Al-Mirghani said that their agreement with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to join the government would help to begin a consensus and enforce democratic transformation, saving the country from unilateralism while moving away from the sad stage of ’cracks and fissures’, towards unity.
The DUP chief called for an end to the military conflicts in Blue Nile and South Kordofan as well as a resumption of normal relations with the newly established Republic of South Sudan.
However the decision of the DUP to join the ’broad-base’ government formed last month has triggered a party crisis, which has seen many DUP members tendering their resignations and others protesting in their home areas.
There were limited clashes between those opposing the DUP participation, and al-Mirghani’s supporters at the independence day celebrations, but these were eventually contained.
In his prepared remarks, Al-Mirghani warned against religious, racial and political extremism.
He praised the role played by Sufism, political parties and national unions in integrating the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-racial components of the society into a national melting pot with a common denominator, unity.
However the DUP chief noted that the weakening of this aspect paved the way for the emergence of extremism.
Party officials told the Sudan Tribune that Al-Mirghani’s absence at the celebrations today were explained by a sudden illness. They said that it was likely that he would be traveling abroad in the coming days.
[Picture: Map of Sudan. Photo: Wiki.]
Saturday, January 07, 2012
It was a bright sunny day, but 4-year-old Ferohar Bellagh and other preschoolers at Fremont's Brier Elementary School weren't interested in going outside.
Instead, they were captivated inside Room 11 by their teacher reading a story of a boy from another country who travels to a neighboring village to find its residents terrified by a dangerous animal.
Ferohar, who wore black braids tied with a pink ribbon, laughed along with her classmates when the forbidding creature turned out to be a mere watermelon.
Having overwhelmed the "animal," the boy in the story hands out delicious fruit slices to villagers and teaches them how to grow watermelon. The town will henceforth be known as Watermelon Village.
"The Clever Boy and the Terrible, Dangerous Animal," which aims to teach children how to overcome their fears and question prejudices, is one of many children's stories from the rich oral traditions of Afghanistan.
Its publisher, Hoopoe Books, has published such stories since its inception in 1998. The company, a division of the Los Altos-based educational nonprofit Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge, publishes tales collected and retold by the late Afghan author and teacher Idries Shah.
Born in India to a family of Afghan nobility, Shah wrote more than three dozen books before his death in 1966. His writings generally show how Sufism - the mystical dimension of Islam - is a source of wisdom.
Since 2009, Hoopoe Books has distributed the books to Afghan and U.S. libraries, schools and orphanages under the label Books for Afghanistan.
"By repatriating these tales to the nation, we are restoring a part of Afghan cultural tradition and fighting illiteracy," Hoopoe Books Director Sally Mallam said.
Almost three-quarters of Afghans over the age of 15, according to Hoopoe Books, cannot read or write, while 5 million of the country's 12 million school-age children have no access to education.
The Books for Afghanistan program recently received a Public Diplomacy Grant award of $4.5 million from the U.S. State Department, which will allow it to print and distribute nearly 2.6 million books by September, including 1.7 million copies in Dari and Pashto, the major languages of Afghanistan. That's a huge boost from its paltry 2011 budget of $67,000 from private donors.
The books are printed in Afghanistan and delivered in cooperation with such Afghan nongovernmental organizations as the Kabul-based Khatiz Organization for Rehabilitation.
Shah's tales are designed to encourage children to think on their own, question authority and counter extremist ideologies. They also convey values and capabilities such as kindness and courage, as in the story about the boy and the "terrible, dangerous animal."
"The tales revitalize a storytelling tradition disrupted by three decades of conflict and help to enable the next generation to fully participate in a modern country," Mallam said.
To date, more than 600,000 books, which are illustrated by Bay Area artists, have been distributed across the United States.
Brier Elementary received more than 300 kits, which include books and CDs, last year.
"The kids, parents and teachers like the stories, because they are authentic and exciting," said Beverly Taub, program manager of Brier's preschool programs.
English is not the first language of many Brier parents, who come from such countries as Mexico, India and China.
"The kits from Hoopoe came with a CD and in an English as well as a Spanish version. That's a good way to bring books into the homes," Taub said. "Many households do not own more than one or two children's books."
Ferohar's parents are Afghans. Fremont has the largest Afghan community in the country, which is centered in an area known as Little Kabul. Some Afghan families might recognize the tales from their childhood.
Picture: Ferohar Bellagh and Sohaila Belagh look at "The Clever Boy and the Terrible, Dangerous Animal". Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle.
Friday, January 06, 2012
Hyderabad: The arrangements of organizing three days annual “urs” celebrations of great Sufi Saint Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai have been finalized by Mela Organizing Committee in its meeting held on Thursday at Bhitshah Rest House under the chair of Sindh Culture Secretary Abdul Aziz Uqeli.
The 268th three days annual urs celebrations of Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai will be held from January 9 to 11, 2012 at Bhitshah.
Addressing the meeting, the Provincial Culture Secretary informed that around 0.7 million people are expected to attend the annual urs celebrations.
He said that the arrangements to provide uninterrupted power, water supply and efficient drainage system have been finalized while health facilities at fixed camps and hospital as well as mobile medical units have been ensured to meet any eventuality during urs celebrations.
Besides, the management concerned has also been directed for fumigation in the area, he said.
He informed that arrangements for holding international Adbi (Literary) Conference, Malakhra (traditional Sindhi wrestling) Sugharan Je Katchehry, establishment of Model Village, Mach Katchehry, Catle Show, Agro-Industrial exhibition, Musical Concert and other events have also been finalized to provide informative entertainment to the devotees of Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.
He informed that Sindh Culture Department has always made effort not only to convert the event of annual urs of Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai into transformation of his message of love, affection and prosperity in the world for universal peace but also to depict the Sindhi culture, literature, and rites of inhabitants.
[Picture: Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai mentions his travels in the Risalo. Photo: Wiki.]
Thursday, January 05, 2012
Multan: Ceremonies to mark the 772nd death anniversary of Bahauddin Zakariya, patron saint of Multan, started on Saturday.
Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi gave bath to the mausoleum.
Addressing the Zakariya conference, Qureshi said some political parties were planning to divide Sindh to prevent followers of Sufi saints from propagating the saints’ message of peace and harmony.
He said he hoped these people would leave President Asif Ali Zardari and instead join him to thwart the former’s designs against them.
He said his party would bring peace and prosperity to the country by acting on the teachings of Bahauddin Zakariya and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
He announced he would soon hold tours to all provinces of the country to meet people from various ethnic groups so that they could be united on PTI’s platform.
He said terrorism was in fact a conspiracy against Islam and was meant to malign Muslims all over the world. He said the government had failed to counter these designs against Muslims. Qureshi also spoke about the Balochistan crisis.
Minister for Zakat and Usher, Ehsaan-ud-Din Qureshi, also attended the ceremonies on Saturday.
The Urs will continue for three days. Pilgrims from all over the country have arrived in Multan to attend the ceremonies. These pilgrims are staying at camps set up at Qasim Baagh Stadium.
More than 500 police personnel were deployed in and around the shrine to ensure security.
Picture: Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi gave bath to the mausoleum. Photo: Express.
Wednesday, January 04, 2012
Egyptians celebrate 2012 in Tahrir Square: Tens of thousands of Egyptians flocked to Tahrir Square on Saturday to see in the New Year in the symbolic home of the revolution
In a joyous atmosphere where Coptic hymns, Sufi music and revolutionary songs intertwined, thousands of Egyptians marked the end of 2011 and the beginning of the New Year in Tahrir Square, which has for some revolutionaries become their makeshift home since January.
At the Qasr El-Dobara Church, site of a field hospital during clashes, a service began at 8pm as youth created a human shield around the church to protect it from any attacks. After the service, a march began from the church to the square as participants held aloft tens of balloons containing photos of martyrs who have been killed during the past year.
When they arrived at the square, several priests climbed the stage and addressed the crowd to be met with cheering and whistling from the excited crowd who began chanting “Muslim and Christian are one hand.”
Ramy Essam, revolutionary singer who became famous for penning the song “Leave” during the 18-day uprising, also sang several patriotic songs for the crowd. Several other stars also made an appearance serenading the night including Aly El-Haggar, Azza Balbaa, Sufi singer Sheikh Ahmed El-Touny and poet Abdel Rahman Youssef.
At the stroke of midnight, balloons the colours of the Egyptian flag were released into the air amidst fireworks, and cheers and whistles from the crowd.
Picture: Ali El-Haggar sings in Tahrir for the martyrs to start 2012. Photo: Mai Shaheen.
Tuesday, January 03, 2012
For anyone who has fallen in love with the works of Persian poet Rumi, Dr. Ahmad Javid’s new book “Sufi Light: The Secret of Meditation” (published by Balboa Press) may come as a welcome accompaniment. Like the work of Rumi, “Sufi Light” contemplates the themes of faith, love and the divine.
“The main objective of this book,” says Javid, “is to explore the secrets of human and divine love, their relationship, and their interaction through meditation on the personal Name of God, Allah. Such meditation is a portal to draw upon and receive the ever-shining light and a means to live in the divine presence.”
Living in this “divine presence” has become the aim for many.
“There is a growing awareness about spirituality and increasing interest in religion due to the failure of modernization and rapid technological advancement to provide peace of mind and personal fulfillment,” says Javid.
“Sufism is becoming more popular, and mystical poetry is being read widely throughout the world. Millions are practicing some form of meditation, yoga, or prayer, as well as attending spiritual retreats. Thousands of books have been written on the subjects of meditation, yoga, positive thinking, the power of imagination, and the laws of attraction. Both men and women have an ever-increasing appetite for self-help spiritual guide books so as to satisfy their inner desire to connect with their source. The number of people seeking the truth is ever increasing.”
Javid, who is also a pediatrics physician, brings a unique perspective to his work, bridging eastern and western philosophies.
“‘Sufi Light and The Secret of Meditation’ is the only book uniquely positioned to appeal to all those interested in religion, spirituality, meditation, and yoga—seekers on the path and divine lovers. It is a must read for both teachers and students of spirituality. If they do not know what is divulged in this book, their knowledge of meditation on the Divine is incomplete, and their efforts are just hard labor.”
About the Author
Dr. Ahmad Javid is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was born in Pakistan, a twelfth-generation Sufi raised in a traditional religious and spiritual household. He received his medical degree from Khyber Medical College, Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1973.
He has a diploma in pediatrics from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow, and the University College, Dublin, Ireland.
He spent 17 years in Iran, where he extensively studied Sufi literature and poetry. He came to the United States in 1993 and finished residency training in pediatrics from Columbia University, New York, where he served as a chief resident as well.
He has been invested with khirqa (cloak) of the Sarwari Qaderi order of Sufis.
[Click here to "look inside" the book.]
[Front Cover: Balboa Press.]