Archive for November 15th, 2011

Seeking Solace in Sufism

By Renuka Deshpande for Daily News & Analysis

The city’s metamorphosis from a sleepy town to a metropolis has left most of us long for peace and contentment. This is why Punekars are taking to Sufism as a quest for harmony and the need to seek refuge in the promise of hope and love.

Sufism or Tasawwuf, the mystical arm of Islam, which is inwardly directed, deals with the soul’s relationship with god. It advocates oneness with god and urges that everything men do, be driven by one sole motivation — the love of god. The word Sufi means ‘clothed in wool’, reveals Dr Zubair Fattani in his article The Meaning of Tasawwuf, and is metaphoric of the inwardness of Islam wrapped in its exterior expressions.

Over the centuries, it has found expression in the ecstatic and reflective poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, Baba Bulleh Shah, Hafiz, Rabia and Moinuddin Chisti and others, which is increasingly popular in the city.

Bookshelves laden with books on Sufism and its various expressions in poetry, music and dance are a common sight, as are the collections featuring Sufi music maestros like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Kailash Kher and the Sabri brothers, among many illustrious others.

Jyoti Mate, a city Sufi music and dance therapist, uses this mystical dimension to heal all those who seek solace in it. The whirling dervishes, the most iconic symbol of Sufism, are the basic element of Sufi dance and represent the earth rotating around the sun, also symbolic of the universe.

“Sufi dance helps stir pent-up and suppressed emotions within oneself. The hands are outspread while whirling and the head is thrown off-centre. A lot is metaphorical in Sufism, dance being no exception. The raising of the right hand and facing it skyward indicates absorption of knowledge from the heavens and the left hand which is pointed downwards, palm-down, passes it on to others.The head thrown off-centre is an urge to be non-egocentric, so that the ego doesn’t grow further. The cap used by Sufis is made of camel hair and is of a specific height, again symbolising the curtailing of the ego,” she says.

Mate adds that response to her therapy sessions has steadily grown since she first started in June 2008 and people often break into tears after the session is over.

On the music front, there is Ruhaniyat, the all-India Sufi and mystic music festival presented by Banyan Tree, which has been coming to Pune for the past eight years. The seven-city festival brings with it Baul musicians from West Bengal, comprising Sufi Muslims and Vaishnav Hindus, the Manganiars from Rajasthan singing Sufi folk music from the state, qawwals like the Sabri brothers and Turkish Sufi musician Latif Bolat, among others. Nandini Mukesh, director of Banyan Tree, who also emcees Ruhaniyat, says that the festival has elicited phenomenal response in the city.

“Last year, our attendance read around 1,800 people. We found ourselves continually adding chairs,” she says adding that the audience in Pune is very evolved and sophisticated and comes with an understanding of the music played at the festival.

Speaking of the musical response she receives at Ruhaniyat, Nandini says, “Baul songs are incredibly symbolic and metaphorical and touch a chord within people. Qawwalis comprise incredibly powerful musical compositions and progressions, but the Hindi and Urdu lyrics are simple to understand. Beyond a point, however, words cease to matter and the musical experience turns mystical and takes precedence.”

The popularity of Sufi rock bands like Junoon from Pakistan, along with Coke Studio, has also led to the emergence of Sufi rock bands like Chakra in the city, which does a lot of covers of Pakistani Sufi music songs, along with some original compositions featuring dohas of Baba Bulleh Shah and Kabir.

The Osho Meditation Resort in Koregaon Park, has whirling meditation sessions every Wednesday. Ma Amrit Sadhana of the resort, says the eyes are kept open and unfocused while whirling, which forms the first stage of the meditation technique, the second being rest.

“The response to these sessions is great. Watching so many people be a part of the session, and the sight of them totally engrossed in whirling is beautiful,” she adds.

Sheetal Sanghvi of The Urban Ashram, which hosts many Sufi music and dance workshops, is bringing Sheikha Khadija to Pune in November for a whirling meditation workshop. Khadija is a Sheikha in the Mevlevi Order of America.

“Sufism promotes unity and love and the response to our Sufi workshops is really growing. This is because orthodox systems of religious beliefs sometimes don’t narrate to the soul as well as they should. Sufism, with its teachings, gives hope to people,” he adds.

Islamic scholar Anees Chishti, who isn’t a Sufi but has studied it, is skeptical of this current trend of what he feels is pop-Sufism.

“Sufism requires penance and meditation. Sufi rock and dances are nothing but a Western concept. They call the whirling movements dervishes, but the term, is durvesh, dur meaning pearl and vesh meaning hanging, in Persian. So the composite means ‘hanging like a pearl’. In Turkey, during the time of Rumi, the head of the khanqah or mystic hall, was a durvesh. When he played the daf and sang mystical poetry, people listening to him would go in a trance and start whirling. So ‘durvesh’ refers to a person and not a bodily movement. All this pageantry is a marketing tactic,” he says.

Opinions on the topic are many and varied, but most will agree that Sufism in its numerous interpretations in literature, music and dance does feel divine.

Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– Amongst literally hundreds of favorite Rumi quotes, one of our top one sums up life very well when he said: “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

Pakistani journalist given U.S. Asylum Tells of Threats, Disappearances in Baluchistan

By Pamela Constable for The Washington Post

Siraj Ahmed Malik, an ambitious young Pakistani journalist, was enjoying a stint last fall on a fellowship at the University of Arizona when he started getting chilling messages from home.

One after another, his friends and colleagues were disappearing, he learned, and their bodies were turning up with bullet holes and burn marks. A doctor’s son from his home town was arrested and vanished. A fellow reporter was kidnapped, and his corpse was found near a river. A student leader was detained, and his bullet-riddled body dumped on a highway. A writer whose stories Malik had edited was shot and killed.

“These were kids I had played cricket with, people I had interviewed, younger reporters I had taught,” Malik, 28, said in an interview last week in Arlington County, where he now lives. The final straw came in early June, when one of his mentors, a poet and scholar, was gunned down in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, Malik’s native province.

On Aug. 19, Malik applied for political asylum in the United States. In his petition, he said that his work as a journalist and ethnic activist in Baluchistan, where he had exposed military abuses, made him likely to be arrested, tortured, abducted and “ultimately killed by the government” if he returned.

Two weeks ago, his petition was granted. It was a highly unusual decision by U.S. immigration officials, given Pakistan’s status: a strategic partner in Washington’s war against Islamic terrorism; a longtime recipient of U.S. aid; and a democracy with an elected civilian government and vibrant national news media.

“I never wanted to leave my country, but I don’t want to become a martyr, either,” said Malik, a soft-spoken but steely man who spends his days hunched over a laptop at coffee shops in Clarendon, checking with sources back home to update his online newspaper, whose name means “Baluch Truth.”

“What’s going on in Baluchistan is like the dirty war in Argentina,” he said. “I need to be telling the story, but I can’t afford to become the story.”

Baluchistan is the Wild West of Pakistan — a remote desert province, larger than France, that is home to a mix of radical Islamic groups, rival ethnic and refugee gangs, rebellious armed tribes, and security agencies that have long been reported to kidnap, torture and kill dissidents with impunity.

Living under constant threat

Yet this ongoing violence and skulduggery receives scant international attention. Foreign journalists are banned from visiting the region alone, while headlines about Pakistan are dominated by a separate, high-stakes border conflict in which American drones and Pakistani troops are battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

As a result, a handful of local journalists such as Malik have been left to investigate and report the news without big-city patrons or visiting foreign delegations to give them cover.

“The threat of disappearance was always lurking in the back of our minds,” Malik wrote in his asylum petition. “My friends, colleagues and I lived with the knowledge that yesterday it was him that disappeared; today it is someone else; tomorrow it could easily be me.”

As Malik recounted over coffee, pressure and threats from unidentified intelligence agents were a daily hazard. According to his asylum file, agents accosted him in airports and hotels, detained and questioned him, and repeatedly threatened to “teach me a lesson.”

Malik acknowledges that as an advocate for the Baluch nationalist cause, his journalism is hardly neutral. The ethnic minority movement, which seeks autonomy from the central government, includes armed groups. Malik claims that he does not condone them, but he describes their stance as a “defensive” response to official abuse.

Still, his case for protection was bolstered by reports from human rights groups and letters from university officials in Arizona, who called him “nothing short of brave.” In a July report, Human Rights Watch described a “practice of enforced disappearances” of Baluch leaders and intellectuals, often by security agencies, and listed 45 abductions or killings since 2009.

Activists including Malik assert that more than 5,000 Baluch have vanished in the past decade, but the issue has never been seriously addressed, while the government has both co-opted and persecuted Baluch tribal chiefs. In 2007, Pakistan’s military president fired the head of the Supreme Court, who sought to probe the disappearances. In 2008, a civilian government took office and an investigative commission was established, but little action has been taken.

“The authorities have no answers because there is no accountability,” said one Pakistani diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. He suggested that Malik had exaggerated his fear of persecution as a “ploy” to remain in the United States, but he also called disappearances “the tip of the iceberg” in a society where security forces hold sway behind the scenes. Even a chief justice, he added, “knows there are lines he cannot cross.”

Driven to speak out

Najam Sethi, a newspaper publisher and titan of Pakistan’s liberal media establishment, was Malik’s boss from 2006 to 2010, when he worked as a correspondent in Quetta. For the past few months, Sethi has been on his own sabbatical at the New America Foundation in Washington, partly to escape the pressure he faces at home.

At a public forum here last week, Sethi described Pakistan’s news media as free to snipe at politicians and expose financial scandals but said it remains cautious about reporting on military and intelligence institutions, partly out of respect and partly out of fear.

“The media are scared, because there is no one to protect them,” Sethi said.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 40 Pakistani journalists have been killed since 1992. In May, a well-known investigative reporter, Saleem Shahzad, was abducted and found murdered. Shahzad had received threats after writing about al-Qaeda infiltration of the military, and a senior U.S. military official said his killing had been “sanctioned” by the government.

Asked about Malik, Sethi said he thought his former staffer had been too aggressive and outspoken. As Malik’s editor, he said, he had intervened several times with military authorities to protect him. “I wish he hadn’t gone so far,” Sethi said. “He crossed too many red lines.”

Malik, however, said he felt “betrayed” by such liberal media leaders, saying they have avoided speaking out against oppression in Baluchistan. He recounted how Baluch groups had been galvanized by the 2006 army slaying of the legendary tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti.

“For us, the killing of Bugti was Pakistan’s 9/11,” Malik said. After that, he said, he stepped up his exposure of the violence and abuses. His activities drew increasing attention from government agents, who, he said, called him a “traitor” and threatened to kill him if he did not stop.

Instead, Malik persisted. In early 2010, he attended a conference in India and denounced the disappearances. From his fellowship perch in Arizona last winter, and then while working briefly at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington in the spring, he wrote and spoke out at every opportunity.

But as the deaths of other Baluch journalists and friends began to mount, Malik said last week, he began to hesitate about returning.

“Baluchistan needs a messenger to the world,” he said, itching to get back to his reporting. “Here in the United States, I don’t have an office or money, but at least I can stay alive and get the message out.”

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