Friday, September 11, 2009

Tunisia: Reclaiming "Beginner's Mind"

Back in 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks, Yuko and I traveled to the North African country of Tunisia in an attempt to seek out our own personal dialogue with a Muslim country. 9/11 had provided an awakening for us, a spur for further inquiry to try and understand the root causes. I began searching for what the late Zen master Shunryu Suzuki referred to as "beginner's mind," one that's flexible and open to all possibilities.

We also did what many others did; embraced those closest to us. We reflected on our marriage as a Japanese and a Canadian, and were able to salvage our faith in the belief that individuals are more powerful than events or institutions in bridging cultural divides.

Tunisia seemed like a practical destination, open and more stable than some other Arab states. Then in April something unexpected occurred - a bomb blast at the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba killed 19, 14 of whom were German tourists. This shocking news was made even more so by the alleged involvement of al-Qaeda. After some serious hesitation we continued on with our plans, convinced that this attack was an aberration for normally moderate Tunisia.

We had no regrets. Wherever we went we were warmly welcomed and greeted with generous hospitality. Our most remarkable experience occurred while visiting the same Ghriba Synagogue with a new friend, Hamza, an economics student and a Muslim from the southern Tunisian town of Medenine.

The synagogue had been repaired and there was a visual security presence on the site with police checking ID and passports. We had met Hamza before in the main town of Houmt Souk and he offered to guide us around to a few local sites. He spoke fluent French and English, as well as Arabic.

What seemed ironic to us, a Muslim introducing us to this Jewish synagogue in an Arab country, was nothing but a sincere expression of pride for him. He considered the Jewish population to be as Tunisian as the other Berber and Turkish minorities and was proud of his country's ethnic diversity.

Hamza had proven my initial expectations to be naive, parochial and ultimately prejudicial. Somehow I had harbored the belief that Muslims were different. I knew all Christians didn't hate Muslims; why did I expect all Muslims to hate Jews?

Growing up in Canada, not surprisingly, I learned the canon of Western civilization, including much about Judaism and Israel. Throughout high school the curriculum rightly encouraged me to sympathize with Jews through the lessons of the holocaust. The establishment of the state of Israel and its justification implicitly and naturally flowed from this horrific event.

However, the Arab victims of the Christian Inquisition in the 15th century who perished or were expelled from Europe were never mentioned. The experiences of the modern Palestinians were hardly given a voice.

As a result, I've had to go far out of my way to learn anything about Arab history or the Islamic faith. In Canada this ignorance has been pervasive, promoting a biased media and an unintentionally prejudicial populace.

The "Arab world", like the "Western world", is anything but a unified monolith. There are deeply held suspicions and prejudices between countries and religious sects.

Saddam Hussein despised Muslim extremists as much as George W. Bush. The Indonesian Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, is as representative of Muslims as the American evangelist, Jerry Falwell was of Christians. Ba'asyir openly supported Usama bin-Laden; Falwell stated that the prophet Mohammed was a terrorist. Both are extremists who ultimately poison their own faiths. These similarities need to be pointed out as a reminder that no culture has a monopoly on ignorance or truth.

Seemingly pedestrian acts like choosing a vacation spot or a book to read are in fact profound expressions of political import. The fact that Tunisia is not only an Arab country, but also a Muslim one became a significant reason for visiting. It wouldn't have mattered before, and indeed, may have been a deterrent.

On the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks it's more imperative than ever not to ignore or avoid questions or journeys that may seem uncomfortable or unsavory. Anger and fear are self-perpetuating traps that eventually have to give way for any deeper understanding to emerge. Small acts can be intensely meaningful and a dialogue can take on many forms.

As I stood together with Hamza and my wife inside the beautiful blue sanctuary of the Ghriba Synagogue wearing our borrowed yarmulkes, I caught a glimpse of the possibilities that emerge when people step into different cultural habitats. "The innocence of first inquiry," to quote Shunryu Suzuki once again, is the hallmark of the "beginner's mind." Our first inquiry had led us to Tunisia. Where we go next remains an open question, but one thing is certain -- our choices won't be guided by fear.

No comments:

Post a Comment