IN the departure lounge near Gate No 308 at the Istanbul airport there’s a coffee shop, which has thrown a few chairs and tables near the exit to cater to its needy customers whose flights are delayed. It was here that I got an important glimpse the other day of how one can still frontally approach issues of religious sensitivities. The young Turkish waiter asked an old Arab man to place the order. The man said he was only waiting for his flight to be announced. “Not here, please. This is a coffee shop.” The Arab vacated the chair without fuss.
Next, the waiter turned to a well-heeled albeit younger man who could be from anywhere. Occupying a useful seat he was not generating a lira’s worth of business for the coffee kiosk. “I am fasting,” the man pleaded. “Please go and fast somewhere else. We are serving food to the hungry,” he was told politely. The man left without demur.
I believe this is how Kemal Ataturk would have liked his people to be. They should not flaunt their religion in public, and keep it preferably a private affair. Jinnah applauded Ataturk. Gandhi, on the other hand, as an advocate of the controversial Khilafat Movement, had little time for the Turkish hero’s secular politics.
In the Erdogan era, a marked deviation from the Ataturk vision of Islam seems to have crept in. The Turkish president was asked why he cut his last week’s trip to the United States short. He said he thought it would be “unnecessary” to stay until the burial ceremony of boxing legend Muhammad Ali after realising the event on June 10 would have “no religious aspect”.
A new vocabulary of orthodoxy is palpable today, which quickly mutates into extremism, and it is not limited to Muslims.
Even in the Erdogan era, however, there are limits to how far one can take the public display of religion. For example, travelling from Delhi on Turkish Airlines, I saw the bar nicely stocked with a range of drinks that would have pleased Ghalib. When I asked the plane’s chef on the Istanbul-Dakar sector why his bar was so completely depleted, the man smiled back. “We are a discreet airline. We are flying to a Muslim country.”
As far as Islam in Senegal goes it is the official religion. But try and find a woman in hijab in Dakar and you would not succeed though they will in all probability be scrupulously observing their Ramazan fast. With their beautifully assembled attire woven in a riot of colours, one can’t easily tell a Christian Senegalese from his Muslim counterpart. And yet both sides will be observing their faith with sincerity.
I drove to the Keur Moussa abbey on Sunday to listen to the fabled Gregorian chants its black African denizens sing for congregations every week. I remembered the late Muhammad Ali’s persistent questions to his mother at their Louisville church. Why were all the angels white, Ali would want to know. Well, he would have found both Mary and Jesus in their black African avatar at the Senegal abbey, an hour’s drive from Dakar. The angels hovering over them are black too. And the music, it is divine.
The situation in South Asia is fraught by comparison. Americans ‘skedule’ their appointments while the English ‘shedule’ them. The obvious reason for pronouncing schedule differently, the Americans will laugh, can be found in the different ‘shools’ the two attended. South Asia’s debate between Ramadan and Ramazan would reflect a similar unequal contest of receding and upwardly mobile cultures, had it not been usurped by its pervasive religious revivalism.
Given the mushrooming clusters of orthodox believers we face today, the chances are that those who prefer the Arabic Ramadan would be found to be the more assertive Muslims against the conventional lot who have stayed with Ramazan to describe the month of fasting. A new vocabulary of orthodoxy is palpable today, which readily mutates into extremism, and it is not limited to Muslims.
The syndrome exists among a growing number of north India’s Hindus, for example. They have migrated from the traditional and laid-back Jai Ramji ki as a social greeting over the years to Jai Shri Ram, the latter with pronounced religious and even militant underpinnings.
It is highly probable in my view that the mob that lynched Mohammed Akhlaq — whether he ate or did not eat beef — would respond to Jai Shri Ram rather than to Jai Ramji ki as a greeting. It is equally my instinct that the Pakistani policeman who assaulted an 80-year old Hindu man for eating outside his house in Sindh before sunset last week is a partisan of Ramadan over Ramazan. Check it out. My hunch derives from the pattern of vocabulary religious orthodoxy assumes.
Given my early exposure to Ramazan in Lucknow, it is difficult to accept that there is no music on the occasion today. Some of you will remember how in the mornings singers who would call out in unison to the fasting men and women, and their children for sehri, the last meal before sunrise.
On the other hand there was the legacy of Ghalib always offering his own insights with roots placed deep in realism: Iftaar-i-saum kii jise kuch dast gaah ho/ Us shakhs ko zaroor hai rozaa rakha kare/ Jis paas roza khol ke khaane ko kuch na ho/ Roza agar na khaaye to naachaar kya kare. (The one who has the means to break his fast/ that person should indeed keep the fast/ The one who has nothing to break his fast with/ What else can he do but to ‘eat the fast’).
In Delhi, there were poetry soirees during Ramazan where the congregation would conclude with the morning meal. Apparently, a couplet would lure the audiences: Mushaira bhi hai, sehri ka intezam bhi/ Daawat-i- aam hai, yaarane nuqtadan ke liye. (This mushaira will end with sehri. Friendly critics and commoners are welcome for both).
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2016