last thursday i met some friends for coffee, to discuss an upcoming fundraiser. we talked about everything under the sun including slavery and its implications. at one point someone compared african american slavery with jewish subjugation at the hands of the babylonians and pharoahs. besides the obvious difference in time elapsed since their respective liberation, there seem to be other unique factors inherent in the african american experience. african american slaves were ripped from their land, their culture, their language, their world and brought into an alien land. many africans were terrified by their captors because they had never seen people with white skin – they thought that they were ghosts, non-human, otherworldly.
they did not arrive in america as an exiled “community” but as fragments of tribes and cultures that most of them never came into contact with after their capture. most slaves did not speak the language of other slaves. the horror and loneliness of this fact alone is unimaginable. there was no cohesive community, no common language, no shared traditions, no comforting rituals, no common stories and myths, and no shared religion. there was nothing to tell them who they were and where they came from. no one to validate their sense of self-identity. it is truly nightmarish to be isolated to this point. on the other hand, most jews have a strong sense of community, of where they come from and who they are.
if one thinks about it, it is quite admirable that african americans overcame this by turning their experience of slavery into such a vibrant and strong culture. whether it be worship, music, language (strongly recommend toni morrison to get a feel for the african american experience through the “language” of the slaves), dance, or fashion, african americans have evolved into an incredibly creative community. if more of them were given the right circumstances to bloom and exercise this creativity, god knows how wonderfully explosive it would be.
btw here’s a great short film by kiki davis – it highlights problems of identity that stem from what I have tried to describe above – check it out.
on march 8th i had a meeting with my mosaic partner pat domaratz and my friend sarita arden, at java joe’s, rochester’s farmers market. i had never been there before and loved the ambience. there weren’t that many people at 11am but i loved the art and the sunflower-yellow paint on the walls, and their crepes were great, especially the homemade cheese sauce.
in the evening we went to an event organized by the center for interfaith studies and dialogue (CISD) at nazareth college. it was a night of sacred music – an energetic performance by cantor sam asher of temple beth david, the islamic call to prayer performed by imam ishak kizilaslan, supplications by youness tihm and his group, a qawwali (sufi music) performed by the pakistani american society of rochester, afro-american spirituals performed by the mt baptist church, performances by the downtown presbyterian church, hindu invocations by the hindu temple of rochester and finally buddhist chants. i filmed bits and pieces of the entire show for the documentary, especially the qawwali in which my husband and many of our muslim interviewees were taking part. thom came along and shot with a different camera. it was 9.30pm by the time we left. my husband and i hadn’t had dinner and it was way past our kids’ bedtime but all in all the CISD is doing a great job in bringing people of different faiths together by highlighting the common thread that runs through all religions – music inspired by god.
a quick aside on qawwali (devotional sufi music from pakistan and india) – check out a brief intro on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawali. i find qawwali absolutely fascinating. not only is the poetry exquisite in its simplicity and emotive earnestness but the music is equally entrancing. there is a slow but steady build-up to a crescendo as the qawwal (the qawwali singer) lets go more and more of the rhythmic understructure of the song and paints with increased intensity on this musical canvas. such variations soon turn to repetition until the words start to blur and lose their meaning. the goal is to achieve a state of ecstatic rapture, an altered state of consciousness, a union with the divine. nusrat fateh ali was a great qawwal. he collaborated with peter gabriel and eddy vedder (of pearl jam) to bring qawwali to the west. some purists hold that against him but truth be told, whether it was traditional qawwali or some creative fusion between different genres, fateh ali was a musical genius with immense range. he died tragically in 1997 at the age of 49. here is a sample from nusrat fateh ali’s rendition of “allah hu”.
so i am an artist and filmmaker and i’m presently working on a documentary about mainstream muslims, which is most muslims out there. the only problem is that they’re completely invisible. when you can do a story about gun-toting terrorists and their burqa-wielding better halves why bother with the vast majority of us who are just like everybody else? well, i bothered. maybe because i can feel the frustration of being invisible or maybe it’s just that i’m tired of being represented by people i cannot relate to. whether it’s the raggedy suicide bomber or the westernized muslim “insider” who’s made a cottage industry out of denouncing islam – i have problems with both.
an essential part of getting to know muslims on film is getting to know non-muslims first. the film has to acquire the form of a dialogue. i wanted to survey a cross section of non-muslim americans and ask them what they thought about islam and muslims in general. i wanted them to frame the questions i was going to pose to muslim interviewees. to this end i went to starry nites cafe today along with thom marini, my cinematographer. customer traffic was disappointingly slow but we got a few people to do a vox pop. vox populi is latin for “voice of the people”. it’s a technique used in documentary filmmaking to gauge popular opinion by asking a large number of random people the same question and aggregating their responses. thom and i filmed for about 3 hours and got some interesting questions. many women wanted to know about female subjugation in islam. one woman made a brief but cogent statement that was so wonderfully phrased i’m tempted to use it as a closing. the sun was out and we had plenty of light inside the cafe, which is visually stunning anyway. it was all good.