Sunday, August 7, 2011

Religious Diversity over Four Days

These last four days have been exciting. We have seen some tourist sites in Delhi like the famous India Gate and Red Fort. 

And I have been reflecting on the interesting contrast in religious life in India. Our family has been invited to experience four very different windows into the wonderful diversity of this country.

On Thursday night, we met our friend Altuf Makhiawala just after sundown in Nizamuddin West Colony, an old and posh Muslim section of Delhi. In 2004, Altuf was a Caux Scholar ( – which is a peacebuilding program in Caux, Switzerland, sponsored by Initiatives of Change – just as I was back in 1996. He grew up in an observant Muslim family in Bombay and has been educated in English-medium schools. A journalist by training with a degree in Peace Studies from University of Bradford in the U.K., he is now working in media and donor relations for the UNICEF office in Delhi.

Altuf broke the fast on the fourth day of Ramadan before walking to meet us. He led us through increasingly narrow streets of the markets that made up this very old and important section of the city. Once Altuf gave her the cue, Aviva covered her head with a black scarf out of respect for the Muslim culture we were entering. We still got curious stares as we passed many Muslim men and a few covered women in the streets. I later bought a traditional Muslim head covering for myself, a tight-fitting crocheted white skull cap, which reminded me of a Jewish yarmulke or kippah, outside a mosque. This was a very big mosque with a madrassa adjacent and we asked Altuf about it.

About six weeks ago, when we first Altuf for dinner, a group of Muslim men dressed head-to-toe in white robes wearing white caps (like the one I bought) walked by us in the street. Altuf told us then that these men belonged to a group of conservative Muslim missionaries who work to bring back those brothers they see as straying from what they believe is the true path of Islam – a very orthodox Sunni version – back into the fold. “Kind of like Chabad tries to do for the Jews,” Aviva and I both said.

Stopping outside that big mosque on Thursday, Altuf reminded us of those guys we saw in the street. “They are part of the Tablighi Jamaat movement and this is the mosque and center where they are,” he said. “They believe that there is no other way but theirs. And that any Muslim can have direct contact with God.” In contrast to this view, he explained, the Sufis which we were about to encounter just 100 yards away, as we wound through even narrower passageways that allowed only pedestrians, “Those guys believe that if you do prayers and offerings at these Sufi tombs then they will reach Allah. So, one school believes there can be mediators between God and humans while the other school does not. And this conflict can get really bad at times.”

We walked on and removed our shoes as the stone walkways gave way to marble and we entered the area which contains the tomb of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, who died in 1325 at age 92. It is an ornate shrine where pilgrims prostrate themselves and pray. Outside the shrine, the beautiful and haunting sounds of Sufi songs were sung by group of four qawwali singers. A hundred people were seated in the courtyard swaying to these traditional tunes. Just a few steps away is the tomb of the daughter of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, where women sometimes enter into ecstatic trances as if exorcising demons.

After this unique experience that we never would have had were it not for our friend Altuf, we joined him for a meal at a famous halal (Muslim’s form of kosher) restaurant called Karim’s, which has roots that go back to the Mogul empire. The place was packed with many well-off Muslims in western clothing eating a first meal after a long day fasting. The evening was a wonderful window into a few different versions of Islam.

The next night, we celebrated Shabbat with services and a meal at Chabad. Located in a hard to find alleyway off the main backpackers section of Old Delhi, Pahar Ganj, the Chabad House is one of only a few gathering places for Jews to come together in Delhi. With only about 5,000 Jews in all of India (the same size as Omaha’s Jewish population), there is probably not enough in any one city to sustain multiple congregations and synagogues only exist in the biggest of metropolises.

Aviva and the girls had been to Shabbat services at synagogues in both Delhi and Mumbai, but I was unable to attend those. But for the Chabad Shabbat services, we all went together. The taxi we caught there did not know the address, but the nice Sikh driver was both patient and persistent getting us into the section where most of the shops and hotels had Hebrew signs. India has become a very popular place for Israelis to go, especially young people after their military service, and this section of Pahar Ganj obviously catered to them.

We were directed by a shopkeeper who Ilana initially spoke to in Hebrew, “Go to the bindi shop and turn right. Down the alley then up some stairs you will find Chabad.” As we entered the alley and made our way past young Indian men smoking and looking at us like we didn’t belong, there was a blackout and all lights went dark. Leora squeeze my hand tightly and froze, saying, “Daddy, I don’t want to go down there.” I reassured her and we went onwards just as the lights came back on. Aviva then found another smaller alley in which there was an army officer on guard. She asked, “Chabad?” and he wagged his head yes. About three hours later when we left, there were three military men in uniform stationed outside the door, an unfortunately necessary precaution after Chabad in Mumbai was targeted in the 2008 terrorist attacks.

We made our way up the stairs and I sat with the seven other men there, divided by the mahitzah from the women’s section. Everyone spoke Hebrew and I caught only bits of what was said, more from tuning into the context than from understanding any words. When it became clear that they were waiting for a tenth man in order to complete the minyan, the quorum needed to do certain prayers in Orthodox Judaism, I said to the muscular Israeli next to me, “I am here with my family who is Jewish, but I am not. Just want to let you know that I am not going to be able to help with the minyan.” He smiled an appreciative smile and said, “That’s OK. More will come.” And sure enough, about 15 minutes later we started the Shabbat service.

The 48 guests that crowded into the tight quarters, coming and going throughout the night, were all Israeli except for the four in my family. Only the three Chabad rabbis were dressed in Orthodox clothes; most of the guests wore t-shirts and shorts, sandals and tattoos, and were there to connect with other Israeli Jews in a distant land. We were warmly welcomed by all. When I mentioned my friend Rabbi Mendel Katzman, Omaha’s Chabad rabbi, to the lead rabbi there knowingly asked, “Is he ginger like that?” pointing to a red-headed guy next to me. I laughed and said yes. “Yes, yes, of course I know him and his family,” the rabbi said.

The meal was typical Israeli fare with many fresh salads then a fish dish and rice. As shots of whiskey were poured and “l’chaim” was shouted with increasing volume, various people shared stories. One young man told about being saved from a rockslide while the guy next to him perished – “Baruch Hashem” – while another told a long tale with a punchline that cracked everyone up. Leora got up on a chair and shared a story of our family traveling in a taxi in Israeli and the driver not believing that we were the parents of daughters who spoke Hebrew with such good Israeli accents (that, thanks to Hamorah Edit and Hamorah Na’ama at Friedel Jewish Academy). Her story got great applause and some extra l’chaims for it coming from the youngest guest in the crowd.

No matter where you are in the world, Jews will welcome other Jews (and their spouses!). And even if I didn’t understand most of the conversation, my daughters did and I am proud of that fact. My girls confidently sang the tunes and said the prayers right along with everyone else there. And I am positive that their Jewish identity is strengthened when they connect with others abroad, both Jews and non-Jews, as we did this Shabbat.

Islam Too
On Saturday night, we had a very different experience. My friend and colleague at Sampradaan Indian Centre for Philanthropy, Moijuddin, invited my family over to his home to break the fast. We left our flat and flagged down an auto rickshaw on the street. When we told him we wanted to go to Zakir Nagar, he looked at us quizzically and, as if to confirm this strange information asked, “Muslim area?” When I answer yes, he wagged his head no and drove off.

We next approached a Sikh driver who wanted to warn us about where we were heading, “That’s a Muslim area. Are you sure?” When I confirmed that yes that is where we were going he said “OK” then negotiated a price above what it would have been had he used the meter. I figured that he would get us to our destination if he says he will – Sikh men are very forthright and honorable in this regard; if they tell you something, they are duty bound to carry it out – and we hopped in. As we got nearer, I called Moijuddin as I said I would. He talked to the auto driver and guided him to a meeting spot. After hanging up, the Sikh driver said, “Moijuddin. That’s a Muslim name. He is going to feed you chicken dinner,” then laughed his head off as if he just couldn’t believe this American family was going to a Muslim house to break the fast. (Moijuddin’s family actually prepared a vegetarian dinner instead of the usual meat, only because I told him my family keeps kosher, which means they eat vegetarian in India.)

Moijuddin met the auto with his motorcycle, his 16 month old perched on the gas tank, and guided us to his home through about six blocks of narrow streets full of post-monsoon rain mud. We walked up four flights, kicked off our shoes in the hall and entered the small living room of his home. The apartment was abuzz with activity. Neighbors came and left plates of food with which to break the fast. Kids wandered in and out, chatting with each other but especially interested in staring and smiling at these white American guests.

They have nine people in three generations living in this two bedroom apartment. It was obvious that his wife, mother and niece had gone to great lengths to prepare a meal that was special for us. Moijuddin had told me, “This is the first time that Jews, Christians and Muslims will all be under the same roof in my home. We are all children of Abraham.”

And we were, indeed, treated as honored guests in their home.  At 7:12, as the sun set, we sat on the floor in the bedroom that Moijuddin shares with his wife, toddler and baby who was born last month. Moijuddin’s neice, who is in 12th grade at an English-medium school, served us. They started by making sure that all of my family had full plates before taking anything themselves, and this was after a day of fasting! Finally, the family members ate dates, the traditional way for Muslims to break the fast. Then they had tomato and onion salad, then fruit salad, then different breaded vegetables. Once we finished this food, Moijuddin and I walked about three blocks to the mosque for the first prayers after break-fast. The women and girls stayed behind and played and talked and cooed over the new baby.

I waited outside while he crammed into the courtyard of the mosque with about 300 other men to do the ritual prayers, prostrating themselves on the mats many brought along. While inside they prayed, outside men wondered what I was doing loitering. Some boys on the roof of the mosque started by waiving then said in what little English they knew, “Hello. What is your name?” I quietly answered “Patrick” but became aware that this might disturb the men inside. Sure enough, an older man in a white beard came out and hushed up at the boys then shot me a disapproving look. Later, the men filed out of the mosque back onto the street and looked curiously at me still standing where they saw me before. One said, “What are you doing here?” more sincerely curious than accusatory. I told him I was waiting for my friend Moijuddin and he asked where I was from. I said, “United States of America” then reassured him, “Thank you for welcoming me into your neighborhood.” He answered, “You are welcome here.”

Everywhere I try to hold up the friendships I am making, very intentionally honoring those who are coming from different cultures or religions. I am particularly conscious of this with Muslims, knowing that I am not just representing myself, but my country, my religion and, when I am with my family, the Jewish people too. We may be the first and only interfaith family that these Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs or whomever will ever come to know. I want the lasting impression to be a positive one.

Sunday night, we went to the home of another friend and colleague from Sampradaan, Dr. Pradeepta Kumar Nayak. He and his wife, a computer science teacher of high school students, have one daughter, a 10 year old who is in 6th grade. Our girls really hit it off, doing magic tricks, playing cards and dancing together. Their daughter, Ankita, did a traditional Indian dance that was beautiful. Leora did a ballet. And Ilana some jazz dance.

Pradeepta and his wife are Hindus who met each other only five days before marrying. This was an arranged marriage that seems to have worked out well. They are from the same high caste and come from villages just 12 kilometers from each other in Orissa state. They are both educated and live far from family now. They spoke of missing their close families and some of the positive aspects of traditional culture in the villages. However, both also spoke of how stifling the expectations of village life can be. “What if you had married a Christian or Muslim or Jew?” I asked. “It would not be accepted to even marry outside our caste,” they answered. “Our family would disown us.” They lamented the occasional “honor killings” which take place when a family feel a girl (it always seems to be a girl) has done something to disgrace the community so they kill her.

We feasted on homemade food from Orissa and talked of balancing work and family. They live in the Delhi Development Authority flats, a middle-class neighborhood built in the late 1970s as housing for the ASEAN Games that India hosted. Their small two-bedroom flat was nice, but not luxurious. By Indian standards, this two-income one-child family is well-off.

Seeing these friends’ homes made me and Aviva think more about what we “need” in terms of housing and possessions. One of the many lessons we have learned (again) on this trip is how little we actually need to be happy. In Omaha, we lead a life of luxury compared to most in the world. And when we complain about little things that complicate our lives, we need to remember and be grateful for the many, many blessings that we take for granted. Thanks, God! 

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