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Beyond Words - Issue #32 What travel has taught me about religion.

Beyond Words - Issue #32 What travel has taught me about religion.
By Nandini Chakraborty • Issue #32 • View online
‘I have an Arabic name, not a Muslim one,’ a guide in Bethlehem had once told me, in a travel moment that changed my perceptions and taught me how we tend to assume and stereotype cultures, especially where religion is concerned.
Over years, there have been several moments, across the world which have taught me more. These are a few humble reflections of my ignorance and journey of learning.

In 2018 I did my first female solo trip, to Israel. Booked on a day drip to Bethlehem, my first surprise was to realise that we were crossing a border with barbed wire and lots of freedom to Palestine graffiti and a checkpoint. Israeli passport holders are usually not allowed to make the trip. The bigger surprise was to come later.
‘Hello, my name is Ashraf, and I am your guide for this tour,’ said a tall handsome man. This would be a heart-warming story to take back, I thought. So, the guide for a trip, the essence of which would be the church of Nativity and Star Street, would be a Muslim. As the tour progressed, Ashraf talked more about ‘we Christians in Palestine’ and displayed the not very pleased attitude towards Israel same as any other tour guide in the middle east we have met in other countries (barring Israel itself of course). The more ‘we Christians’ he mentioned, the more confused I was.
At the end of the tour, I took him aside. ‘Are you a Christian?’ I asked directly. ‘Yes,’ answered Ashraf. ‘So why do you have a Muslim name?’ I asked. ‘I have an Arabic name, not a Muslim one,’ he explained. ‘We are proud Arabs as well,’ Ashraf continued, drawing himself up to his full height. ‘Not all Arabic culture is Islamic.’
Looking back, it was the one moment in travel which taught me the most about breaking assumptions and learning how little we know about cultures other than our own, and certainly about religion. It has been a learning curve, a reflective journey, ever since.
As an Indian Bengali, I have grown up in a culture which associates all Arabic names and all Arabic culture with Islam. I am aware of the reverse. Not all Muslim Bengalis, especially in Bangladesh have Arabic names. Many have quintessential Bengali names, some even with Hindu religious connections- Aditi, Partho, Rudro. Most Bangladeshis have a first name, a surname and then a third name by which they are usually addressed. It is not unusual to find the first and second names to be Arabic, and the third name to be Bengali or ‘Hindu’ in common perspective.
Six months after Israel, I visited Lebanon with my husband and daughter. (Yes, you can. Israel does not stamp your passport. Lebanon asks no questions, and you tell no lies. I suspect even the authorities know. Just don’t display your Israel travels in Lebanon. The countries are officially at war but currently in a cease fire. Travellers can be respectful to sentiments of both.) At the centre of Beirut, near to Martyr’s square stands the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque and the Church of Saint George. Shoulder to shoulder, the minarets of one and the bell tower of the other, exactly the same height. Bullet riddled buildings are scattered around the city, many of them lining the incongruously named ‘Green line’ which separated the Muslim and Christian halves of the city during the long and bloody civil war. (The Green line was named as such because this was the ‘no man’s land’ between two warring factions. Being an area with no footfall for over a decade, nature reclaimed it and natural jungle greenery grew through the concrete and tarmac, which earned the line its name.) There can be no official commemoration of the war. It is a painful episode which cannot be celebrated. But the Lebanese have left deliberate reminders, to both sides, of how fragile peace can be and how precious. And so, the Church and the Mosque stand together, in a realisation. Ultimately, both sides want peace. There are no real winners in a war, all suffer.
Kadisha Valley in northern Lebanon is a place that oozes Christianity. Its cliffs and mountains have sheltered monasteries for centuries, shelters carved and built into the walls of the valley. Bcharre, a red roofed town which stands at the end of the valley where the northern and southern walls diverge, is the birthplace of Khalil Gibran. I am sure I am not the only person out there, outside the middle east, who before my visit to Kadisha Valley, assumed that the famous Arab poet, sculptor, and painter was Muslim. He was born into a Maronite Christian family and deeply influenced by Islam and Sufi spirituality. He remains one of the most influential writers of the Arab world. ‘The Prophet’ his masterpiece is a bestseller throughout the ages.
Intrigued by Maronite Christians, I looked into more well-known personalities in the community and came across Nouhad Wadie’ Haddad or as she is more famously known-Fairuz. One of the most famous singers across the Arab world (a legend in fact), she refused to take sides in the fifteen-year civil war which tore Lebanon apart. Looking up her songs on YouTube I found ‘Ya Oum Allah’, which translates to ‘Mother of God’, a Christian hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Yes, the other big realisation. Arab Christians also call God ‘Allah’. We had visited Kadisha Valley over the Easter weekend. Sermons in Arabic blared from loudspeakers and an effigy of Judas Iscariot burned at the town square. We could not quite make out the names of the churches. The inscriptions and signboards were in Arabic, so were the Bibles. As Easter Sunday dawned, the churches were full, as prayers were offered to ‘Allah’. (I would later also read that Christmas in Arabic was Eid, Eid Al-Milad).
My first trip to the Balkans was a trek on Via Dinarica, crossing from Albania to Montenegro and finally ending in Kosovo. I flew into Tirana International Airport Nënë Tereza, obviously named after the Mother Teresa, an Albanian herself and highly revered by her people. Her statue graces the first roundabout just outside the airport. Tirana’s main square is dominated by a statue of Skanderbeg, the national hero who fought against the Ottomans for Christian freedom.
What I had not realised within all this, is that Albania is a Muslim majority country, around 56 percent of its population is Muslim. Our guide was white, green eyed, ginger haired, and a Muslim. A proud and good one.
It was a few days into our trek that I asked him why he did not greet the villagers on our way As-Salaam-Alaikum, or a return Wa-Alaikum-Salaam, as we usually hear Muslims do. ‘We have our own Albanian greetings’, said Adnan proudly. ‘We are Albanians first and everything else next’ was the statement I would hear many times from many Albanians in the following week. They had their own greetings, and farewells, their own marriage customs, and their own names. Some had Arabic names but many of the younger ones prefer traditional Albanian ones. Adnan interestingly described his name as ‘Arabic’ not ‘Muslim’. His girlfriend had an Albanian name which meant Rose. It was Mother Teresa’s birth name he told us proudly. It was Adnan who would teach me in later years that Eid-Ul-Fitr in Albanian was ‘Perhajr bajrami. Eid was Arabic for ‘festival’. In the Arabic world it could be Eid-Ul-Fitr or Christmas, non-Arabic Muslims could have their own language of celebration.
Kosovo has a much larger proportion of Muslims, almost 96 percent. But for the ethnic Albanian population, Skanderbeg and Mother Teresa are still national heroes. There are large city squares in Prishtina dedicated to both and a new large Cathedral overlooks the city.
Many years ago, a well-travelled colleague at work had mentioned ‘Churches in Southern Spain look like mosques, mosques in Istanbul look like churches.’ Perhaps an oversimplification. But I must say that the Mezquita in Cordoba and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul have a similar half and half look on the interior. In Cordoba, the former mosque, now a cathedral still houses a decorated mihrab, alongside the altar, the Koranic inscriptions still intact. In Hagia Sophia, an earlier church, a later mosque and a current museum, a gilt bordered fresco of Mother Mary and baby Jesus arches over the mihrab from the tall ceiling. Stained-glass windows so clearly church like, encircle the space which would have once directed the prayers towards Mecca. In Cordoba, the local Catholics still talk about offering prayers and mass at ‘the mosque’.
The history of humanity over the world is fascinating. How the information, the feelings of a people get passed on to the next generations, how we assimilate various cultures. It took me by surprise when a tour guide in Riga, Latvia said ‘We did not accept Christianity willingly, it was often forced on us.’ In the post-Communist era, as people rose to find another identity, all religious colour greyed out by communism for decades, it was not just Christian worship and the Churches which had a fresh lease of life. Latvian people delved deeper into an ethnic search which went beyond Christian times. Every five years, for one week, Riga sees the Nationwide Latvian Song and Dance Festival where thousands of singers and folk dancers gather for a series of performances. The dancers make complex formations which invoke symbols from the old religions, the songs incorporate names of deities. Subtly, unconsciously the Latvian people touch their past Gods.
In Tallinn, Estonia, a Russian Orthodox Church with its slate-coloured onion peel architecture, bears witness to a history of religious subjugation. Estonia, a tiny Baltic country which has won independence twice- once from Russia and another time from USSR, had to decide on the future of the Church. Beautiful architecture, history all the same, good, or bad. The Estonians let it stay, where it does to this day, marking the horizon along with the many Catholic Churches the city houses.
Let us now cross the Atlantic and enter South America. In Zocalo of Mexico City, the main square dominated by the Metropolitan Cathedral, Sunday sees a gathering of Aztec worshippers in traditional waistbands and headdress. As the Church bells toll in Sunday prayer, conch shells pierce the air and incense fills both the Church and the Aztec marquee. If I closed my eyes and just listened, the chanting, the bells, the conch shell, and the incense- I could be in the midst of a Hindu puja, at home in Kolkata, as the priest read out Sanskrit slokas from ancient Hindu scriptures.
As we started our gentle canal cruise in the networks of Xochimilco which quenches the thirst of Mexico City, our Catholic guide started off by offering prayers to the four directions in Nahuatl, the old Aztec language. It was needed, to appease the spirits that ruled the waters. The currents could be treacherous. Catholicism has not taken away the ancient beliefs in the water spirits which demand sacrifice and worship. A female spirit, in particular, is feared by men. She rules Xochimilco.
In Peru, our homestay on Amantani island was with a local family. The patriarch was Christopher. His daughter was Rukhsana. Their religion? Peru, like Mexico, holds allegiance to the old Incan Gods as much as it worships in its Catholic Churches.
And now, I am going to sweep you right back to India, my homeland. In fact, I am going to bring you to West Bengal, my home state where I discovered the village of Pingla. A treasure, a ‘hidden gem’ the cliché phrase one would use for it. Located in Midnapore in the area of Nayagram, around 3 hours drive from Kolkata, Pingla houses the singing artisans, a community who have had the same profession for centuries. They choose a story from Hindu mythology, compose a song to it, then paint a series of pictures onto scrolls which depict the story. The performance is a multi-sensory delight. An artist displays the scroll, scene by scene, as they sing the stories of old Hindu deities, love stories of Radha and Krishna, holy Muslim peers and medieval Hindu Bengali epic poems (mongol kabyo). My shamefaced admission? I came to know of Pingla at the age of 47 years, while living in the UK and in my decade long interest in travelling now. I was born and brought up in West Bengal.
However, the interesting fact about Pingla? The artisans are in the vast majority Muslim. Converted to Islam in medieval times, the artists found themselves with no alternative occupation. And so, they continued in what they did best, painting and singing about the Hindu Gods. Muslim peers did find their way in as has current affairs. But the large part of the Chitrakaar artistry still centres around Hindu mythology.
Talking about current affairs brings to mind another confusion with names. As the infamous ISIS hit international headlines in 2014, I spent a couple of perplexed months wondering why a terrorist group with no regard for old Gods and no respect for women had decided to name themselves after the most famous Egyptian Goddess ever. Isis was the patron Goddess of Cleopatra herself, her fame and worship spreading far and wide, even up to ancient Rome at one point. I am not sure ISIS have ever heard of Isis. We had just heard a lot of the powerful Goddess Isis, in an Egypt tour in 2014, with no idea that very soon the name would mean something else to most people in the world. The name Isis (the name, not the acronym mind you) has other meanings as well. The section of Thames that flows through the city of Oxford is called Isis, as is a particular brand of local sweet cheese in Oxford. Cafes, farmhouses and canal boats in Oxford take their names from River Isis and have held on to them. After all they were Isis first. It took me a few months to realise that the infamous ISIS was an acronym, for a terrorist organisation who got their branding terribly wrong.
I will end back in the middle east, this time in the walled city of Jerusalem, on the steps which lead down to the Western Wall, the golden Dome of the Rock rising at the corner on Temple mount. On a Friday evening as the Jews celebrate Sabbath, the singing and dancing reaching a peak, the Friday evening prayers from Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount start, and flow in to join the celebrations. The melody swells and merges in a swirl which merges centuries of complex history. You need to ignore the line of heavily armed soldiers who line up at the back of the crowd, as Jewish and Muslim prayer chants merge in one.
After all, there is still hope.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nandini Chakraborty

Stories from travel. There is nothing that teaches us more than human interaction, culture, and history. Travel breaks misconceptions, challenges assumptions and teaches us the true worth of this world of ours.

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