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A vital link

Judith Fein

October 28, 2001

It's a Saturday night. Some people are going to movies, some are staying home to read, or eat, or have sex. Kids are having sleepovers and play dates. We had a Wisdom Circle.

At 6 o'clock, there were about 5 people in the room. I always feel that same anxiety: Why are we doing this? Does anyone care? Will anyone come?

And then they started to arrive. By 6:30, there were about 110 people. I loved the faces--black, white, brown. I loved the clothes—scarves and turbans and jeans and boots and long hair and short hair.

It was a potluck, as usual. And it was easy to tell from the groaning board that people were cooking from the organ that beats in the middle of the chest. There was a gigantic platter of lamb couscous, grape leaves, a Thanksgiving-sized turkey, guacamole, rice dishes, chickens, Middle Eastern salads, home-made cornbread, humus, vegetarian tamales, a corn and bean dish. Prepared with so much caring that the plates couldn’t contain the essence of the food: it could have spilled over onto West San Francisco Street, streamed down the block, floated into the air and covered the world in peace and love. That's how the food tasted.

One woman whispered to me that it was her son Zayd's 12th birthday. So before anything else, before a grain of rice passed between anyone's lips, we sang happy birthday to Zayd, and he said the blessing over the food. If he were three times twelve, the blessing couldn't have been more impactful. He said it was important for us all to be here, that it meant a lot to him and gave him hope. He spoke in English and in Arabic. And then we ate.

This place, Tribes Coffee House, has since 9/11 become the meeting place of the cultures. At every Wisdom Circle, you can dine at a table with a man from Turkey, a woman from Holland, a Jew, a Palestinian, a German, a Chilean, a Catalonian, an Afghanistani, a Spaniard. Most of the Muslims could eat because one man provided kosher meat. Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, connected by ancient dietary laws. A link. A vital link.

I loved the faces--black, white, brown. I loved the clothes—scarves and turbans and jeans and boots and long hair and short hair.

After the food, we went around the room, so each person could speak. It is important that everyone is a participant and no one is an outside observer. Because of the number of people, each participant was limited to a few sentences.

Someone spoke of her fear. A woman from Holland said her brother, a journalist in the media there, had received a letter with poisonous powder in it, that it had hit home. Another woman had just come from a meeting with a fire chief. He reported that within 20 minutes of the WTC attack, thousands of planes were grounded--literally ripped from the skies. There were hideous plans for those planes. The swiftness of the response prevented the loss of maybe 30,000 people, instead of the already ghastly 5,000.

One woman brought her father. He worked in the government. He supports President Bush’s response.

One man from Nigeria said he was afraid to talk, because he could be imprisoned or even killed in his country if he spoke about the problems there.

Little children spoke. One said he feels very angry now, which is why he plays football. Another, who looked about 4, reported that he is studying karate, but hasn't yet learned to kick. The children were so open, so present, so spontaneous: the way we should all be.

A beautiful man from Afghanistan had driven from Albuquerque to show us a huge map he drew of his country. It had taken him three years to create. He began to deliver a lecture about the history of Afghanistan, about the topography. It didn't feel right. We began to ask him: what do you FEEL? When he addressed that issue, it was riveting. He said that with all the invasions, all the wars, there has never before been such loud bombs. That no one can imagine the noise. That many children are getting punctured eardrums and becoming deaf.

He said that there are so many tunnels in his country they will never ferret out those who are hiding. That Afghanistan is the size of Texas, and there are tunnels that run almost the whole length of the country. Another man who lived in Afghanistan said that he thinks Bin Laden is probably in the caves next to the statues of the great Buddha. Americans wouldn't dare bomb there, so it was safe to live in caves.

I don't want to report what everyone said because it would sap the power of the stories to reduce them to short synopses. The most important thing is that person after person said he/she had never spoken this way before, never in America, never in public.

So the very sound of those unheard voices resonated...echoed...very far. Fresh, new voices. Not sound bites on TV. Voices of love and pain and anguish and hope. One young Muslim woman said Muslims in America have to start working in the system in this country, getting involved in law, politics. Others spoke of feeling split between the country they came from and where they are living; it's as though they no longer belong anywhere.

I tuned out for a minute. It suddenly seemed that everyone was saying the same thing. HEAR US. We are not the purported majority who support the war. We want peace. We do not want this war. Little Zayd stood up. "Why do you punish people for what someone else has done?" he asked. "It's not right to punish people for somebody else's wrong- doing." Can anyone answer Zayd's birthday question?

A Sikh man said everyone must practice self-love and meditation before anything can change. One or two people called for action, for proactivity.

After the voices had been heard, the man from Afghanistan offered a slide show for those interested. About 30 people gathered around him, as he showed slides of his country in the 60's and 70's and 80's. There were camel caravans, mountains that looked like northern New Mexico, mosques from the 13th century, the great Buddha statue, mysterious towers, shot of the main cities, fortresses, nomads in their tents, yurts.

People asked questions about everything from Genghis Kahn to the number of inhabitants in Afghanistan (25 million). There was something transcendent about this man.

While we are bombing the country, while the world cheers or jeers or wrings its collective hands, while we miss targets and people die, while the Taliban execute an opposition leader, while the packages of food drop and the jets screech, here was a sole Afghanistani, quietly showing pictures of the beauty and diversity of his country.

He described how he and his brother escaped from the country during the Russian occupation, showing us the exact route on the map. How they almost walked into a town held by the Russians, how they waited until night, when the Russians vacated the town to return to their camp. He described the exhaustion of the trek, but there was no great sadness in his voice. There was pride. Joy. Acceptance. At times he was almost giggling or laughing.

And the question no one asked, but everyone wondered was: what does it look like now? Are these places still standing? The towers? The fortress? The mosques? What happened to the footprints of all of those who escaped, and those who are escaping now? Will the sand hold the imprint, or will their marks be scattered and forgotten? Will they ever return?

Next time, the format is going to change. First, everyone agreed to be on time (whew...maybe that will cut my own anxiety). Then, we are going to start getting inside each others' reality. We are going to share traditions. And we will join in a Sufi zikr, which is a wondrous mystical ceremony of remembrance of God. It will be led by Fatih, the owner of Tribes. And then, at subsequent meetings, we will do Jewish ceremonies, Sikh meditations, Nigerian drumming, whatever people want to lead.

We have to lift ourselves up, up, above debate, above words. We have to meet in a place where there can be union.

Some people want to invite media. Others don't. Trust the group. Follow the good energy. It will all be revealed.

It is late, my friend. Blessings to you, and good night.

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