I shudder thinking of what is happening in the U.S. these days politically. The idea of banning Muslims – or anyone from anywhere or any religion – is the antithesis of my ideas of what America is about. Certainly anyone who is not Native American, whose family is not indigenous to North America – which is most of the population of the United States – should be offended and outraged by the latest orders of the Presidency if they consider how their ancestors were also immigrants at one point in time. I am a second generation Italian American whose family arrived by ship, some of my relatives were illegal and undocumented, but stayed and built a life after the World Wars, some came legally through Ellis Island. I could never imagine feeling that it would be right under any circumstances, to discriminate against those now being called “dreamers” – who also wish for a new life. America is currently going through an identity crisis.
The current President has threatened to start to register Muslims in the U.S. This act would separate families and deny access to entry. The term made me remember when I was “registered” by Muslims on a trip to the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi, an experience that was quite the opposite of what America intends. I had never been to a Muslim place of worship before. Although not a Mosque, it is a holy place for Muslims. After all the negative and fearful opinions Americans had been perpetuating about Muslim extremists I can’t deny that the idea of going to visit worried me a bit. Plus the fact that I was a woman and was unsure how I would be treated. But truthfully, I had no concrete reason why I should be afraid and so I committed to go despite it.
The Nizamuddin Dargah is the tomb of Sufi poet Amir Khusro and tomb of his master – the Sufi Saint – Nizamuddin Auliya. Having read the poetry of Amir over the years it seemed impossible that I should risk visiting Delhi and leave without paying my respects being that I am also a poet. Not only did Amir write poetry, he was also a musician and developed Qawalli devotional music. Amir’s poetry and music is quite beautiful, still read and played to this day.
I brought a long scarf to cover my hair and wore clothing and leggings to cover my body. I felt as though I looked quite silly and out of place, but I was determined to see Amir’s grave. To enter and find the temple you had to walk down the ever narrowing passageways of a market place. Booths were filled with flowers, colorful tapestries and devotional treasures. It was hot, crowded and chaotic. As we arrived closer – a man called out to us that he would watch our shoes. He placed a plate of rose petals in our hands, a folded tapestry and a traditional covering for Daniel’s head. He said it was common to enter with an offering for the tombs. We left our shoes with him and wound our way past more booths and passageways before finally coming upon the bright opening of the Dargah.
There were many people with offerings, all queuing in line to enter the tombs of the Sufi saints. Women were allowed to sit outside, peering in through an elaborately decorated mesh of laticed stone work where they could see into the tomb where the men were making their offerings. As I watched Daniel go inside to follow the ritual, I felt a sense of feeling overwhelmed with emotion. Here I was, not knowing much about the Muslim religion but knowing I was moved by Amir’s poetry and the fact that I was sitting in the close presence of his remains. Here were many people, endlessly arriving everyday to pay respects to a poet and musician by throwing rose petals on his grave and beautiful tapestries. Where would I ever witness something so ecstatic in the United States where poetry is seen as “hard to understand” and abstract to many instead of integrated into daily life? I started to cry.
For me, I have written and read poetry since I was in grade school very young. Poets were my idols. Artists, musicians. But somehow I live in a country where the arts are deemed as “extra curricular,” i.e. – not necessary, and funding is systematically stripped from the arts every year. For me, poetry, art, music is a necessity. Both access to and the expression of it. Yet even when I’ve gone to Europe, I’ve seen artists printed on the money. It is a clear sign of what the country and its people value. In India I felt moved that Ghandhi was on every denomination of the rupee. At the Dargah, I remarked that I had never in my life seen a poet’s grave as such a lively and active place of worship as this was. Yes, America is having an identity crisis and perhaps I’ve also, always wondered if I belong here. The current political climate definitely makes me question if this country and the people who live here share the same values as I do. Perhaps everyone whose family is from somewhere else, eventually feels this way. Perhaps America is always being reimagined by the people who live here, yet right now I am afraid we are living in a nightmare. I hope we can turn this around and work to create an America that is worthy of being a dream place for immigrants.
When Daniel returned to sit with me, we were approached by a man asking to register us as visitors to the Dargah. He asked for a small donation if we wanted to give, but had a big leger book with names and addresses of the guests.”What is this for?” we asked. “We would like to send you a postcard a year from now to celebrate and remember when you came to visit the Dargah.” It was not what I was expecting to hear and the idea of that seemed so thoughtful. I imagined receiving a postcard in a year and how I might feel. Their form of a “registry” was light years beyond what America seeks to do to Muslims with their registry. My experience at the Durgah imprinted on me a completely different perspective of the Muslim religion than I was accustomed to seeing on the American news and infused me with a deeper sense of respect for the Muslim heritage, which has a long, rich and vibrant history. Not to mention that the people at the Durguh were welcoming and kind. Though I admit there are extremists in every religion, the majority of Muslims are good people. After all, they built a joyful, ecstatic place of worship to a poet and musician. If only America would treat artists as well as Muslims, with as much respect as we witnessed.
A poem by Amir Khusro:
Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.
If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this