Saturday, December 26, 2009

Minaret Muse

Within days of the Swiss rule this month to ban the construction of minarets, conservative American communities have joined the frenzy. Internet websites call for “tearing down minarets in America.” Minarets, much like cathedral steeples or belfries, are slender towers beside mosques from which muezzins, or Muslim holy men, call their people to prayer. I cannot help but speak on behalf of minarets as my work for the past twenty years has been devoted to cross-cultural understanding and I have great appreciation and fondness for these architectural works of art. In fact, I am intimately acquainted with some of the grandest and smallest of them.

In 2005 I was invited to Iran to speak at their First International Children’s Book Festival because I had written a novel about a Persian nomadic carpet weaver. During my visit a writer who hailed from Isfahan arranged for a group of us to climb the centuries old minaret that soars above the blue-and green-tiled, Friday Mosque in this city. As a Westerner steeped in Christianity, the opportunity to explore inside a minaret was a view into an unfamiliar culture and religion. I found the experience as enlightening as it was inspirational.

No light filtered into the minaret in Isfahan. In order to climb in sheer darkness, we had to feel our way. I had to run the side of my foot up the fourteen inches or so of each step’s steep rise because much of the staircase had crumbled hundreds of years ago. Flakes of stone and sand spiraled below us in the stairwell. It occurred to me as we climbed how difficult it was in the pitch darkness to distinguish the self from the void of blackness, the all. Like whirling dervishes we circled round and round, much as stars dance in the cosmos. From this tower---at dawn, noon and dusk---the call to prayer is sung, beginning with the words, Alahu Akbar, God is Most Great. The universe itself, through the lilting voice of the muezzin, draws those who listen into the natural rhythm of sun and moon, reminding worshippers throughout each day about the beneficence of our Maker. This call to prayer asks penitents to pause and stand before all of creation, to bow in humility and gratitude, to kneel---to submit or dissolve into God. Finally, by placing their heads to the ground in prostration, they assume a position in which their heart is higher than their head---a gesture symbolizing a desire to act according to one’s soul rather than one’s ego.

Thrusting open the door at the top of the minaret, the desert sun penetrated our skin, the view breathtaking. Dust-colored mountains hugged the town; clusters of adobe neighborhoods huddled below us; stone bridges stretched across the River Zayandeh, offering a cool space where people gathered to drink tea. Stories above the turquoise tiles of the mosque dome, it seemed heaven and earth touched.

I’ve since visited other minarets while traveling in the Middle East and Central Asia, and one that I will always hold dear is Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara. This minaret inspired the setting for a scene in my forthcoming novel set in Uzbekistan, once part of the northern reaches of the Persian empire. Even Genghis Khan, a non Muslim, marveled at its many arched windows high in the cupola, its brickwork and lovely Arabic inscriptions. He respected the ingenuity of its builders who crafted this tallest minaret in Asia, and Khan made sure that his army did not destroy it when they attacked the nearby fortress.

I find it sad and troubling that people in this century feel driven to pick up a club, are compelled to smash mortar and jade that would eclipse alternative vantages from which to ponder the world. Robbing Muslims of their right to express their faith not only grounds the muezzins, it diminishes opportunities for those who would reach out to the Muslims within their communities for the sake of everyone. This Christmas season as we gaze at our illuminated trees, may we be reminded of Christ’s words, “Do unto others as you would have them due unto you.” Or maybe we can open our hearts a little wider to consider another wise man, whose death is celebrated by the Whirling Dervishes, Muslims and many others on the 17th of December. A thirteenth-century poet named Jalaluddin Rumi from Konya, Turkey---the most widely read poet in the West---who said, “In my soul there is a temple, a mosque, and a church where I kneel...”

One of my most treasured views in the world is from a rooftop nestled between the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where seagulls fly freely, circling minaret and cathedral dome within the same wing beat above the Bosphorus. Birds, carving the air so easily with their feathers, without concern for this brand of prayer or that, unaware of the names Brahmain, Buddha, Mother Earth, Father Sky, The Great Spirit…

Image: Kaylan Minaret, Bukhara

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

India's Children's Book Trust

Seated with me is Ira Saxena, Secretary of the Associaition of Writiers and Illustrators for Children in New Delhi. She is also a volunteer for India's Children's Book Trust, an organization that publishes books for children in hundreds of local dialects and sponsors literacy programs along with IBBY through out India.

Manorama Jafa, the Vice President of AWIC invited me via email before coming to India to attent their monthly meeting in which twenty or more writers attended. On this particular day, they celebrated the acquisition by a major publisher of their first Hindi dictionary for children, a book the Trust had published many years ago. Royalty checks were distributed to several of the authors attending the meeting.

On a second visit to the Children's Book Trust, Ira Sazxena interviewed me for an article she will write for Indian IBBY Journal. Our discussion roamed from the craft of writing to the underlying theme of Sufism in my novel Anahita's Woven Riddle and our favorite translations of Persian poetry, which Ira grew up reading. Her mother translated the Sufi poetry of Omar Khayyam into Hindi. Ira is presently at work on a novel set in 1800's India with an environmental theme. "Did you know the world's first tree hugger was in India?" she said. I had never given much thought to the origins of this kind of activism and assumed it may have been in the California redwoods. I look forward to reading this novel in the near future. For more details about the Children's Book Trust, its volunteers, and my trip to India, please check out the Central Asian pages on my website.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Readings in Galway, Ireland

This October I had the pleasure of reading to students in Galway, Ireland, at the Westside and Ballybane Libraries. The sixth class of Galway Educate Together National School proved to be an enthusiastic group, their questions about writing a novel, the plot of Anahita's Woven Riddle, carpets and Iran began before I made it to the podium. Hand after hand shot up for a full hour! They were so engrossed with the discussion that after asking me riddles of their own, they invited me back to their school the next week to view slides of Iran. Check out the video below for a taste of my visit with them. Questions asked in this clip: "I read the last page first. What was the answer to her riddle?" "How old was Anahita? Who did she marry?" and "Are you famous?"

I wish to thank Tom Donegan of Children's Books Ireland for arranging my readings in Galway. Maureen Moran of Galway Libraries, Marina Hughes, teacher at Galway Educate Together N.S. and the teens and librarians at Ballybane for welcoming me.

Sorry, the video wouldn't load, will try again soon...

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Children's Lit in Ireland and India

In October I will be visiting Ireland and particiapting in their Children's Books Ireland Book Festival 2009. Please check back here for more details. I am also off to India in November where I will be meeting with children's book authors connected with IBBY India. I look forward to introducing you to them on my blog in the near future!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Weaver's Perspective on Iran

Friends of the Moscow Library invited me to speak on Iran this August about my recent experience weaving on Iran's First World Peace Carpet and my novel set in Iran Anahita's Woven Riddle. To learn more about the Peace Carpet, a project sponsored by UNESCO, please check out the Iran or Weaving pages on my website.

Modeling this Iranian Qashqa'i nomadic headpiece is Homa Assefi, who attended my talk. Many thanks to Homa! This three-pieced covering evolved over many generations. The blue beanie has been worn for centuries along with the black sequined veil. In the 1960's teenagers added the tie-dye like scarves.