When I emerged from my mother’s womb, I heard four languages. My mother and father’s Turkish, the Urdu of the nurses, the English of the doctor, and the azaan outside. I am sure my head turned, my eyes trying to focus into the light, my ears drowning in the absolute din of voices and my nose smelling the air of Karachi. Whose touch was first on my skin? And when my mother kissed me, and when my father held my hand, what words did they choose to release me into the world?
This search for answers; this continual stand against the abyss of nothingness is constant. The desire to belong when I was born, still the same. All of this, still the same.
And it is the same for all us Muslims today. We are surrounded by the multitude of voices, the cacophony of thoughts, the rush of wanting to belong to something that matters. It would be foolish to think or believe that there is a common identity to our lives because our lives, change on a daily basis. And our lives are changing on a tectonic level.
But it is not foolish to see that that we as Muslims have a common identity as beings; this being which is the core of our walks through our lives. And that common being identity is at a crossroads.
The crossroads are simple yet complicated. If the idea of the modern nation-state evolved as a construct from the European renaissance which allowed for the efficient exchange of political will and economic goods resulting in forged national institutions, it was also a tool of the colonial powers to impose power and distribute it handsomely to (de)base loyalties. Countries were created as bribes, fiefdoms established and nurtured for collateral bargaining; borders were created based on principles of realpolitik that would make Machiavelli proud. All in the name of power; all at the expense of us.
And make no mistake, that power was also exercised by us, on each other. We are equally complicit.
The colonial powers may have left physically, but they are still in the middle of our lives. Whether it is threads of institutions they left behind, or the despots they supported (and still do), or the promises of various cultural guideposts that are offered for attraction and commerce, they are in the middle of our confusion of what to belong for. And it is herein that lies part of the answer that can unravel that confusion: we belong to each other.
Look at the map… go on look at it. The cartographers’ straight lines dissected through the soul of the families in the early part of the 20th century. So let us dispense with the notion that we are countries solely bound by nationalistic tendencies and tenuous localized regional loyalties. No, we are varied people, bound today with a need to speak and be heard and to urgently re-create a way of being, that is from our own womb.
And we belong to each other. We do.
The murmuring of how ethnicities and tribes would live together, which always had the breath of false promise, has now finally re-awakened as leverage for self-determination on a personal and communal level. It is more localized, louder, and increasingly substantive. All because we are realizing there is a connective human tissue and we are part of that human tissue.
We belong to the human tissue. We belong to each other.
We belong to each other and in that belonging is the need, is the call, is the azaan, for a renaissance of Muslim thought and action that divests itself from the darkness of the past and brings it into the light of the future. I am glad that a long time ago we invented the foundation of numbers and algebra, that we charted the stars, that we had the sense and sensibility of poetry and art, knew the balance between good centralized governance and personal autonomies… I am glad we did that… hundreds of years ago. But we have not built upon those days of explosive creativity in a long while. But the time is at hand, where we need to do that again, and again and again… in short succession, with urgency and clear intent.
The darkness of the past, that bred the ignorance of the present, includes a judiciary that dogmatically relies on tenants of religion with an inculcated mode of governance where the word participatory democracy is not in our day to day to vocabulary. This present day disenfranchisement includes a social pact where the rights of children, women and minorities are considered an after-thought, coupled with an education system that thrives on endlessly useless rote, all reinforced with a belief that the West always carries the lick of the devil. That is darkness. Darkness. It is darkness. This darkness that tears us, shreds us, disintegrates us. And I want none of it any more. None of it. You don’t want it anymore.
I want us, us Muslims, us nations of selves who are Muslims, to invent. To create.To desire.To build.To talk.To walk.To affirm.To seek.To investigate.To bring forth beauty.To wash ourselves of hypocrisy.To be responsible.To be a light. I want us to join the 21st century and contribute to the forward momentum of the globe.
I want us to bring into the open gathering our art, our science, our literature that is new and not creaking with the dirty brown decaying rust of yesteryear.
Yes. Yes. Yes. We need to grow again. We need a re-birth.
If there is a non-negotiable acid etch into the rock under our feet, it is this: That we will say to those who want to destroy, that we will not allow it. That we will tell the West that we have many voices but the absolute constant denominator is that we will (we want) to build political, social and economic structures that allow us to navigate and negotiate as equal partners on a global scale. That we will tell ourselves that we need to expunge the hidden agendas which still to this day define us as communities. That we will tell our neighbors that the shrill whining of victimhood is over-stated and makes the sky we live under, utterly deaf. That we will tell our children to let go and at the same time, let in.
But after the telling, we also have to, do. And what is that do?
I don’t have that answer for you. I really don’t. The only answer I have is for me. And this is my answer: I will speak against any ignorance. I will not tolerate any hate. I will not let anyone destroy, who and what is near me. I will contribute to humanity. I will understand the economic and social depravity of us. I will teach myself and my family to be human beings. I will be responsible for educated freedom and self-determination. I will belong to you and to my selfhood. I will do my best to not succumb to the darkness.
And so after all those days of my birth in Karachi, after many walks under the Benedictine sky of grace and stewardship, those walks of Rumi, Hikmet, Faiz, Tolstoy, Levine, Marquez, Mahfouz, Darwish, the songs of Johnny Cash, U2, Noor Jehan and Zeki Muren, I walk on the coast by the ocean, here in the US. I walk, deliberately, joyfully, painfully. We are all in exile in some way.
And in that exile, my insecurities, doubts and ego contribute to crippling days. But they are only days… not weeks, not years, not centuries…
And in that exile, is the return. To belonging. To selfhood.
Look…I am Turkish, Pakistani and American and in my private and personal moments, when a conversation is between me and the universe, I am also a Muslim. I say also. That personal selfishness to have just one and only one label is no more, should be no more, because it is unsustainable. Trust me on this. And in that trust, I believe is the call, that azaan, for a Muslim (or Islamic, or Arab, or Occidental, or Middle Eastern… does it matter?) renaissance, Renaissance with a capital “R”. And it is a call to where our temples are our homes and places we work. The call is from the roof of our minarets and conversations over dinner. The call is for not just for ourselves but for our children’s children.
It is a call. It is our call. It is a burden. It is our grind, for now and for a while. It is our calling and no one else’s. For the now to become a linked memory for all of us, among all of us, so that there is a future.
So, will this rush go toward grace? To selfhood?
When I was nine, in the summers, my mother and I, with my younger sister in tow, used to go on early morning walks. I tell you, those were the walks for which, I cry to now… it is good to have that cry… I am not complaining. Jasmine in the air, a beautiful sun, the cool breeze carrying the scent of the Arabian Sea, my mother and I just talking about things with a gentleness, grace, beauty and impermanence that only and only exists between a parent and a child. And on some of the walk, as we walked by the park, there was always someone singing a song, in Urdu. Songs of love and longing.Of hurt. Or lament. Of dreams. Of what is, and is to be. Of what should be.
Our songs. Yours and mine.
And so, as is, with all those who cry, come songs from our ancestors and those who will grace us one day. A song came to me. The song came to me in Urdu and settled inside me in English and I want to sing it in Turkish. I want to share it with you. It is in this sharing, comes my hold onto my selfhood.
I saw this river
crashing into the voice
of my womb
and telling me
the acid secrets from the book
of long ago
caressing for me
the whispers of angels
that left the white shrouded leftover
of my father
asking me, telling me
if the whirl of the world
is balanced on the white marrow of
those bones that
are left outside the blood
of our everyday temples
the voice of my womb lamenting to me
the prayers of my son
will the love of my daughters
will the desire of my wife
will the kiss of life
and I say again
that the answer is here
here on my chest
that covers my rib-cage
and that the answer
it was no
and will be no
I am, we are, the river
even though we have forgiven
we forgive no more
no, the life I have
and not yours anymore,
no, the nakedness of our
our absolute desire
for release, voice, kisses, us, you,
is negotiable no more,
no, no, no
I belong to you
as you belong to me.
Go on my friends, go on... make your call and put it all on the line. Put that acid etch into the rock under your feet. Answer the call. In that is our belonging. Our selfhood. Our redemption and salvation. Our Renaissance.
Kerem Durdag is the CEO of Biovation and was born and raised in Pakistan of Turkish parents. His writings and thoughts are on http://www.ireakt.com