Rising at dawn this time of year in mid Summer, unfolds time in the most dazzling, early sequences, which are gone by the late morning as stifling heat and the lethargic cadences of hot California country stretch toward dusk. The sun rises in a lower arc now, lighting the thickets and tangles , making known the burrow beds and resting places of wild things. Quails, at the break of day scurry across the trail, first, one or two, then a flurry of chicks given the OK. There too, rabbit kits want to pause and always in danger from hawks and owls, stare back, until the very last second.
The fading night fog is less thick and becomes ethereally translucent, when gold-pink light illuminates its effervescent sparkle. Through impenetrable thickets of thorny blackberry hedges, the faint outlines of live oak and pale jade olive stands in the mirage of vision across fields. Waves of golden grass with magenta, pale yellow and silver plumes weave the momentary dream. Such beauty, and I think, “I could die peacefully here, right now, this very moment.” A strange thought, but one born of heaven and not the least morbid. This pause of joy feels as if change were fleet– swift as the fragile, tough life of a wild flower.
I don’t stop to memorize the scene as it unfolds sight by view, down the path, around a corner, on ahead it’s an impressionist experience: wild flowers; vineyards; old orchards and farm houses with patches of pink ladies by fallen picket fences; the olive tunnels; moss draped oak; crimson, poison oak vines, appearing in the scarlet climb up to the light; the horse pasture or that little vortex of meadow where Queen Anne’s lace and an explosion of yellow mallow, anise and lavender asters lie beneath the faint outlines of a rainbow, where the rising sun strikes the tule mist.
In the early cool the fragrance of mint saturates the air. Later, as the sun bakes, rosemary, damp fallen oak leaves or rotting apples prevail. I hear the cascading sound of shallow water over rocks, near the little bridge that continues passage from the trail. It all seems so familiar, even a dream, a memory of long ago. Then it strikes me with wonder—that sound of clear, moving, life giving water—-Insha’Allah.
There is something about the sound of Insha’Allah, that delights, is musical and profoundly human in its divine projection. There is also that pinched English translation that propounds, “ God willing.” That may be, and in translation comes across in the western sense with an almost Calvinist taint of ‘fate.’ It would be easy to understand that greeting in the momentum of tragedy which drifts from generation to generation in the convoluted history of the Middle East; especially now, now that the ‘Great War Satan’ stains all life with blood lust, from the terrorist murders of Twin Towers to the silent slaughter of whole villages by predator drones seeking the assignation of single warlord. Through it all, marriages celebrate, coming-of age happens, children are born and if lucky, the elderly die peacefully in bed, while the swirl of daily life goes on.
This account, however, is not about death, but of life, Insha’Allah. Its intent is the story of a pilgrimage and passage through the lands of Islam in a time long before, a time it would seem, irretrievable —- in the current age. Then, Insha’Allah did not suggest only ruin, survival, war, death, torture, vengeance and the inescapable maul of deadly honor. Then, it was more the taste of wild mountain honey on fresh baked naan, sweet-tangy goat yogurt or ripe cantaloupes that grew along side the roads having fallen from passing lorries and spread out, wild in the desert, to the refreshment of travelers on foot.
Insha’Allah was an embracing feeling, hearing canting tones of Allah Akbar ( God is Great) when the muezzins called the faithful to prayer, or the delicate, soft sound of a camel’s padded foot as it passed near the place where a strong glass of tea and sugar cube gave rest to the weary. It was the smell of musky smoke from cooking fires in mud villages at the beginning and end of day. Insha’Allah was then, and probably still is, the heart of Islamic hospitality, a religious will to human compassion, a golden thread that weaves the spirituality of the holy Koran through the fabric of daily life. And, Allah Akbar is again the cry, the invocation to God, against the tyranny of absolutists heard in the dark night skies from the rooftops of ordinary people .
Such thoughts have a vivid intensity these days. I remind myself of those grandfathers I saw as a boy; who, seeking relief by sitting in the shade on a hot day, seemed far off, remembering a life just out of sight. Perhaps it’s the news that stirs it up—- sound bites of sensationalist outrage over predatory psychopaths employed by mercenary companies carry out holy war, murdering innocent Islamic civilians at will under the banner of a Christian American flag.
It makes me sick at heart to know it, to think of it. It’s still going on, even as I try to contain an existential outrage that turns its fury on my own nation, as I decry my shame, our shame and recognize that the patriotism of the old Republic is now a mere commodity of predatory corporatism and I have become an old man remembering the good old days when it wasn’t so; or more accurately, the days before I woke from the American nightmare and realized that the tragic price of wisdom was true experience and democracy losing its truth.
That experience does have its sweet spots and therein lies the story. Looking back more than fifty years ago can take its toll on precision. Sometimes, events are remembered with startling clarity and at other times resemble a pastiche assembled to firm the puzzle and hold together a reality long gone. What remains at the heart of it all is exactly, ‘heart’—the good hearts of individual, ordinary and some not so ordinary people. It’s hard to imagine in these times that it was once possible for a solitary, twenty-something, American Buddhist monk to make a pilgrimage across thousands of miles of Islamic lands and suffer not the slightest harm. There was once a time when the aura and affection for America was so powerful it surrounded the world with the mythic projection of hope and future—a time when respect, hospitality, and honest communication were common virtues; a time when human connection was golden and the golden rule of Islamic hospitality made for a life long impression of all that is best and good in Muslim tradition.
The genius of Islamic culture is evident across vast tracts of the earth, from Mongolia, Mogul India, and Persia, to the remains of the great Ottoman Empire. Architecture and engineering of stunning accomplishment complement the arts of science, astronomy, writing and poetry. And, oh the poetry! Who is not familiar with Rumi, or any of many Islamic poets, whose words echo down through the centuries with fresh passion and intensity as if just written? It can be stated with certainty that Islamic vision has written some of the most divine love poems this side of paradise. The tale of this journey only tangentially touches the great heights of Islamic greatness for it unfolds among the poorest of the poor and the most humble of those people living in fabled lands.
In those days, leaving the literally awesome experience that was and is India, to enter the shabby southern lands of Pakistan, left the traveler disappointed and harassed. Then, the great wealth of globalism, gleaming modern cities, and a burgeoning well educated professional class seemed nascent. Cities reeked of urine, shit, diesel fuel, dust, garbage, sweat and curry. Congestion, crowding and general surliness marked the common encounter and beneath the thin veneer of cosmopolitan democracy lay the ever mighty threat of an unstable, hard rock militarism. Pakistan was the dregs remains of colonial corruption, ever weary of its own people and the rebellious opportunism of its western educated aristocratic clans. It was always ripe for revolution from its conservative sharia underclasses and remains so even today.
How quickly that bad impression changed in the northern tribal lands. There, green verdant hills, lush valleys, peaceful villages and tribal culture seemed at ancient odds with the modern world and more in balance with the truth of daily life. It was passing through those lands that I saw one of the most stunningly beautiful sights, a vision that stayed with me in absolute clarity for decades. Near the end of a long day, my hitch buddy and I went looking for a village hostel or inn, but realized that we were too far out in the country and would have to camp over night.
To do so in those days was dangerous in Pakistan, particularly for young foreigners near the main roads. So, we found a little trail off the highway and followed it for several miles as it wound its way to the forested ridge of a valley. When we got to the ridge top and looked into the valley we were dumbstruck. There, stretching for acres and acres, bisected by a little stream was a forest of ganga plants—-ten to fifteen feet high, in full bloom. The aroma was intoxicating, and the scene was magical. Resinous dew was dripping off the stems and leaves, catching the raked brilliance of the setting sun. It looked like a million fireflies in full light. Later that night, from a clear sky, the full moon shown down on the plants, which glowed phosphorescent and floated above a low lying, luminous mist rising from the stream. We had enough sense to keep ourselves hidden. One truly experienced the divine in that place, as if the eternal presence of the goddess Lakshimi graced those fertile, magical, beautiful acres of mind weed.
Nothing can prepare the uninitiated for the change that is Afghanistan, especially for the overland, thirty three mile gauntlet called the Khyber Pass. Sheer drops, barren craggy peaks, and impenetrable rock seem the essence of the place as does the atmosphere of ancient blood-soaked stone. Grieving ghosts are the breathing air. The specters of invading armies, manic commerce, weary pilgrims and marauding bandits have created one of the most desolate passageways on earth. The sigh of relief everyone breathes at reaching either end alive is a perfectly natural tradition, enumerable centuries in the making.
No hyperbole can do justice to the power and beauty of Afghanistan or its people. ‘Savage’ does not describe the soul of its tribal inhabitants, but the hard, brute force of nature that dominates its territories. The word ‘breathtaking’ comes to mind, ‘unforgettable,’ ‘haunting,’ and despite its challenging uniqueness to the outsider, compels a longing to return and remain. Those who know the wilds of northern Wyoming, Utah or Nevada may have some sense of the wonder of it.
Looking back on it, from all the decades since, I realized that it was a tiny golden age of peace. Afghanistan was a kingdom ruled by the Barakzi dynasty under King Mohammed Zahir Shah. About that time Zahir Shah ascended to actual power and recognizing the need for modernization recruited a number of foreign advisers, gleaning from his associations and connections while a student in France. During this period Afghanistan’s first university was founded and many advances and reforms were instituted, not the least of which was the creation of a modern democratic state, free elections, a parliament, civil rights, universal suffrage and women’s liberation—-particularly opportunities for women in professional fields.
Kabul was a dusty, provincial capital in those days—-reminiscent of America’s Santa Fe, back in the early post war years. It was a thriving, busy, bustling place, and seemed exotic to an impressionable naïf like me. The mystique of Lawrence of Arabia comes to mind. I knew nothing about Afghan politics, but aside from the imposing architecture of nature there, remember two keen things: the competitive joy of kite flying and one of the most memorable meals in my life. For an old kite freak and certified ‘foodie’ that’s saying something. Afghan delights in both spheres.
We settled somewhere on the outskirts of the city, in a dusty square with market stalls, and bustling streets with scooters, trucks and the occasional behemoth American ‘flash’ car. The one memory that remains vivid was a meal, eaten on the second floor of a little restaurant. The interior was plain, unpainted with walls of gray wood boards, plank benches, and a large communal table. At one end of the room was a huge metal pot filled with boiling chunks of lamb. On the table was a platter of yellow rice, mixed with bits of slivered carrots, pistachios, raisins, bits of apricot, and thin slices of onion, with cucumbers and a tangy yogurt.
The memory was so clear I looked up the ingredients on Google recently and found that I had been treated to what was most likely an Afghan Qorma Lawand, a stew or casserole, served with chalow (rice). Most qormas are onion-based. Onions are fried, meat is added, as are fruits, spices , and vegetables. I remember the rice was yellow, but not the taste of saffron, so most likely it was coriander or turmeric. Water is added and left to simmer. The onion ‘crystallizes’, creating a richly colored stew and heaven is in the eating.
The next day we headed out to the desert. Hitchhiking was not encouraged in Afghanistan so we boarded a bus bound for Herat. Before leaving I traded a Grateful Dead sweat shirt for one of those mushroom-shaped Afghani caps ( pakol) that I treasured for years after, until someone stole it while moving one day.
Great adventure awaited us in the long desert distance between Kabul and Herat. The bus was flagged down by what looked to be three army or police officers. They turned out to be bandits and held the passengers hostage, until a few of the tribal guys on the bus jumped and disarmed them, stole their wallets, and left them on the side of the road in their underwear for the next bus to find.
It got more complicated. Next was a real army patrol which commandeered the bus and put everyone in a Cholera quarantine camp for a week. The same hero tribal guys that had earlier saved the day, later busted some hippy’s sitar for playing during prayer time. Other than that contretemps, life passed peacefully, The simple country food was great. We infidels learned to be quiet and respect prayer time. For me, in those silent moments, the vision of Sufi dancers, drew me into the extraordinary beauty of such devotional attention in its more conservative form.
Herat is an ancient city with many historic buildings. The city is dominated by the remains of a citadel constructed by Alexander the Great. During the Middle Ages Herat became one of the important cities of the Persian Caliphate and massive piles of fortified ruins can still be seen mounded high in lonely stretches of desert sand. Over fifty years ago Heart seemed a ghost town, isolated, romantic and forgotten. I would swear it had no electricity, or very little. Few lights shown at night. It left a haunting impression of great poetic beauty with me and I often dream of walking near its exquisite blue mosque one evening while the sun was setting and a moon rising as the chill of a desert night cooled a sweltering day.
Herat, is only fifty miles or so from the Iranian border—so close, but so far away. Something was off in my visa and I had to go all the way back to Kabul. It got straightened out, and I found myself back on the bus headed for Heart once again; the only foreigner riding. That sunset found us in the middle of the Afghan desert, camped for the evening. Earlier in the day I saw that we were trailing a Kuchi caravan off in the distance. When the bus finally settled, it was parked near the caravan camp for safety in numbers and we prepared to stay the night. Some of the Afghans slept in the bus; many of us made for the open air.
While finding a place to set my sleeping roll, a concoction of cotton Indian longhi ; a Nepalese wool jacket; and a full length, embroidered, fleece lined Afghani coat (that still smelled like just-tanned cow) I caught the eye of a gentleman from the caravan. He seemed to be an individual of some stature and he was—-tall, weathered, intense eyes and wearing a well trimmed, mustache and beard. He walked over, gave greeting, shook my hand and asked in perfect Oxford English if I was an American.
During the course of our talk, he heard the account of my pilgrimage, the monastic stay in Japan and of my long journey home through the vast lands of Islam. After a long penetrating gaze he invited me to stay the night in his circle of the camp, near the fire. The next morning I was invited to join his group for tea in an open tent, floored in rich, red carpets. I don’t remember his name and have often wondered if he might have been Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai or his father, nomad Pashtun warriors and men central to the founding of the modern Afghanistan.
The journey into Iran and on to Tehran was remarkable for the distinct and advanced atmosphere of modernity that enveloped the eye compared to Afghanistan or even Pakistan. I knew very little of its politics then, only that the country was governed by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Despite history’s demonizing of the Shah, particularly in light of America’s engineering his puppet’s rise in a coup and the subsequent Iranian Revolution, Pahlavi was something of tragic figure in that his progressive, western and modern views were forced on a reluctant, conservative society by threat and coercion, resulting in one the most disastrous American foreign policy decisions of the 20th century.
To the naive outsider however, Iran was immaculate, modern, and well governed. Even the smallest village had electricity and a clean, central village well. The good life seemed evident, schools prospered, educated workers and a burgeoning middle class made Iran a delightful place to visit. Universities and academies flourished. The arts flourished. Iranian cinema came into its excellence. Painting, sculpture, literature, and poetry burgeoned. Its people were friendly, pro American in a movie fan sort-of-way, and insatiably curious about the world. Tehran was a large cosmopolitan metropolis, a world class city and at first, a shock to the system after traveling several thousand miles through wild desert.
My first night in Tehran was spent sleeping on the balcony of a penthouse. An introductory note given to me by a student I met on the outskirts of the city led me to one of the city’s more luxurious neighborhoods. The truck driver and his brother, who picked me up on the highway, had invited me to their home for a family meal, but I explained that I had an invitation already and gave them the card and its location instructions. They kept saying, every now and then, “Are you sure?” “You want to go THERE?” I became less sure as we entered the neighborhood of consulates, walled villas and elegant apartment buildings. I wish now that I had gone on with the drivers and experienced real Iranian home life and a home-cooked meal.
Instead, what I found after being buzzed in to a small marble lobby was a private elevator that carried me up and up, opening into a large marble and glass foyer crammed with well dressed kids smoking hash and listening to the Rolling Stones. My host, a dark, handsome Iranian playboy with a mini skirted Swedish blond on his arm directed me to his bedroom and told me I could find some peace and quiet sleeping on his balcony outside. There I stood after all those desert nights, at a 130 scrawny pounds, dressed in cotton rags and a Nepalese coat with my mouth dropped open. Nearby a huge bronze brazier held lumps of smoking Frankincense and I felt like I might pass out. He laughed, the blond wandered off, and with an arm around my shoulder said, “You’ll be safe in there.”
The next day I woke late and found the place virtually deserted, and so having failed to find and thank my host, I wrote a note and made my way down and out into the streets of Tehran. At some point, in a coffee shop, or maybe trying to raise some scratch by making colored chalk pictures on the sidewalk, a wise hippie caught me and hustled me off with dire warnings about the Iranian police. I ended up in a rickety hostel in a poor part of town. It was about four stories high and build around a center court with opening balconies on each floor. Somehow I ended up on the roof sleeping under a voluminous , brightly colored tent filled with bolsters and pillows. Apparently, its main resident was a black jazz musician, who played clubs in the city and liked American boys. I mean, really liked American boys. So, for a few days I slept with my belt notched extra tight, before being invited downstairs to bunk with some English hippies.
The English hippies were my kind of folks: fun, adventuresome, chillum oriented, worldly, and street-wise. My friend soon became Tom, a big, tough, borderlands, Northumberland Brit with a heart of gold and a fist of steel. Shortly, before leaving Tehran, one of the hangers-around, smoke sellers that busied the hostel courtyard grabbed Tom’s ass one day and found himself knocked into the stratosphere. Out of nowhere came a gang of knife wielding friends of ‘grab-ass’ to take Tom down. Then looking for a miracle, Insha’Allah, one occurred. The cleaning and kitchen women, who had taken a special shine to the foreign guests, swarmed out of their duty rooms armed with brooms and pots, driving back their threatening men folk with a howl and scolding that, I’m sure in translation, would have made a soldier blush.
Iran was a beautiful place to travel and learn. Its people engaging and I often look back on those days with deep affection for them. It might be said for some aficionados that leaving Iran by way of Tabriz is to forever leave a bit of one’s heart near the border of eternity. That magical city and its immense history was and I’m told still is a wonder best left to the vision and seductions of poets like Rumi and the divine dance of Sufi’s (sama).
We are the flute, our music is all Yours;
We are the mountains echoing only You;
And moves to defeat or victory;
Lions emblazoned high on flags unfurled-
The wind invisible sweeps us through the world.
Leaving Tabriz, however, had its ominous overtones, for the Northern border regions that abut and lead to the Turkish border are formidable, even fierce, and reminiscent of the wastelands of wild Afghanistan. If the hyperbole of description was awed by the rugged power of Afghanistan, few words can capture the magnificence of Turkey, a county indescribably beautiful, wild, noble in its pride of place and saturated with millennia of conquering blood, sacrifice and human endeavor. Breathtaking comes easily to mind—especially when entering the lands surround Mount Ararat. Ararat is a forbidding place, especially back then when its military importance was significant, but always in history ancient or modern the sheer power of its presence is akin to that of the Khyber Pass. Both Josephus in about 70 A.D. and Marco Polo about 1300 A.D. mention its massive secrets—-perhaps the place where Noah’s Arc landed after the great flood.
Maybe a millennium or two of tourists and crackpot seekers explains why the locals were so unfriendly and surly in those regions. It was also the only place in Islam that specializes in bedbugs and fleas. The hospitality so famous, real and true throughout Muslim culture seemed utterly absent in that part of Turkey. I can still feel where that stone landed, out of nowhere, thrown by a moron to ward off the evil eye. Now-a-days the incident reminds me of American Town Hall meetings. Thoughts of mob vulnerability made me wrap my Afghani coat extra tight and move along. Maybe embroidered coats aren’t manly enough for Turks, but I’ll place my bets with an Afghan over a Turk every time.
I didn’t stay long enough in Turkey, but my sour grapes fermented into sweet wine. I found redemption in the kindness of a consul in Ankara, who bought me a train ticket to Istanbul, keeping me out of danger and off the roads. One can never underestimate the gardens of violence so cultivated by hot-headed Turks. While on the train and crouched down in the cheap hallway spaces, I witnessed a terrible, bloody fight which broke out and bedlam erupting everywhere.
Just about to run like hell, somewhere, anywhere, I heard a door open and a huge, powerful hand drag me backwards into a compartment. Stunned, I looked up and there smiling down on me was a Turkish military officer and his giggling family offering me tea and biscuits. I rode all the way to Istanbul with them, sharing stories, and telling tales about America. Allah Arbar, kindness saved a hard heart toward Turkey.
Istanbul is a story all its own and to be told in delicious detail some other time. There, the gateway to Europe and all that was once familiar awaited that young and weary traveler. But, all had changed. I could never and will never see the world the same way again. Islam entered deep into my heart, it’s peoples and rich spiritual teaching—- from the Koran to divinely inspired poetry entwined with simple, immediate acts of kindness let me swear a life oath that has always linked my best impulses to those brothers and sisters of Islam which gave my journey through their lives and lands an abiding light. Tashakur!
Here is an offer in the following poem by Rumi, a greeting and desire for peace, so that good, decent people can once again make love, not war; nurture; plant gardens; raise children in safety; cherish the old; honor the complete suffrage of all women; embrace full civil rights; absorb as much education as desired; find jobs, professions, and right liveyhood; live freely and embrace the deepest spirituality, Insha’Allah, that fate and the questing heart allow.
It is said, the pipe and lute that charm our ears
Derive their melody from rolling spheres;
But Faith, over passing speculation’s bound,
Can see what sweetens every jangled sound.
We, who are parts of Adam, heard with him
The song of angels and of seraphim.
Out memory, though dull and sad, retains
Some echo still of those unearthly strains.
Oh, music is the meat of all who love,
Music uplifts the soul to realms above.
The ashes glow, the latent fires increase:
We listen and are fed with joy and peace.
You know, Michael, the Islamic call to prayer reminds me a whole lot of Eastern Orthodox Byzantine chant, dating back to about the Fourth Century (or so) AD. And still used in the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria (note: all Middle Eastern) and a couple of others.
Byzantine chant had its origins, apparently, from ancient Jewish tradition, as well as chanting from the desert tribes of the Middle East.
And the Afghan qorma? Similar to Moroccan and other North African tagines (often served over couscous) and even Indian (Asian Indian) korma.
I went to an Asian Indian wedding recently, and the music played at the reception reminded me a whole lot of the older Greek music, also (older in the sense of early 20th Century, and before- what I grew up with).
Truly, we are all brothers and sisters.
We are brothers and sisters!
And wouldn’t it be great if more people recognized this?
Michael – you are an amazingly talented writer! I think you should write a book on your travel / experiences – fascinating!
Michael – what a rare and wonderful gift you possess!
This is so beautiful, so rich and evocative. What an incredible journey. Your descriptions and perceptions are simply breathtaking. Thank you for writing it all down.