Saturday, February 25, 2006

Support Denmark and Iraq

When I was young, I was exposed to Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American writer who wrote spare and simple prose celebrating the virtues of God and Life. His work, particularly The Prophet, is allegorical and deliberately vague. I assumed then that he was describing Mohammed. I recognized that it was not factually precise, but perhaps the message was meant to be the distilled essence of Islam, separated from the uncomfortable particularities of Mohammed's life.

It's true that I was not well acquainted with Islam. And it's true that I was wrong about Kahlil Gibran and his book. Gibran was ethnically Christian, but may have been closest to the Baha’i faith. He was, perhaps, describing Islam the way he wished it could be. Upon rereading The Prophet online, I was struck by the likelihood that this book could never have been published in a Muslim country. Maybe my empirical assessment of the Arab World is interfering with my ability to evaluate the true meaning of Islam. Let me show you an example and tell me what you think.

Then a lawyer said, "But what of our Laws, master?"
And he answered:
You delight in laying down laws,
Yet you delight more in breaking them.
Like children playing by the ocean who build sand-towers with constancy and then destroy them with laughter.
But while you build your sand-towers the ocean brings more sand to the shore,
And when you destroy them, the ocean laughs with you.
Verily the ocean laughs always with the innocent.
But what of those to whom life is not an ocean, and man-made laws are not sand-towers,
But to whom life is a rock, and the law a chisel with which they would carve it in their own likeness?
What of the cripple who hates dancers?
What of the ox who loves his yoke and deems the elk and deer of the forest stray and vagrant things?
What of the old serpent who cannot shed his skin, and calls all others naked and shameless?
And of him who comes early to the wedding-feast, and when over-fed and tired goes his way saying that all feasts are violation and all feasters law-breakers?
What shall I say of these save that they too stand in the sunlight, but with their backs to the sun?
They see only their shadows, and their shadows are their laws.
And what is the sun to them but a caster of shadows?
And what is it to acknowledge the laws but to stoop down and trace their shadows upon the earth?
But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?
You who travel with the wind, what weathervane shall direct your course?
What man's law shall bind you if you break your yoke but upon no man's prison door?
What laws shall you fear if you dance but stumble against no man's iron chains?
And who is he that shall bring you to judgment if you tear off your garment yet leave it in no man's path?
People of Orphalese, you can muffle the drum, and you can loosen the strings of the lyre, but who shall command the skylark not to sing?

Yes. What of those who would use the Law as a chisel to carve their own likenesses? When the extended Middle East becomes more of an Islamic monoculture each year, I think I know who to blame. Did Gibran ever meet the Taliban? Did he know the Wahabis? The chiselers in the West have been relegated to the margins, but the chiselers of Islam are on the loose, chiseling away the beautiful images of the Buddha, chiseling away the home of the Mahdi, attempting with righteous fervor to strangle the skylark. No wonder Gibran was vague.

I was driving a lot yesterday. I dropped off the kids at school and went to Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful, beautiful day. I'm uncomfortable with beautiful days in recent years, because ... well, you know why. My daughter wanted to know whether there would be any violence at the demonstration. I said there would not be, but in life nothing is certain. I told my wife that I felt a little silly, driving all the way to Washington for a short, non-productive demonstration of support that would be neither noted nor appreciated by more than a handful. My wife insisted that I was not being silly. Well, maybe I would not be wasting my time.

I was thinking a lot in the car. About Kahlil Gibran, and Denmark, and the appropriate tradeoff between free speech and diplomacy. I got to the site with minutes to spare beforethe demonstration, but was turned away by the police. Can't bring a car in here. Maybe things were out of control, I thought. I got lost a couple times looking for a parking spot. I was tempted to go to the zoo instead. I ended up on Rock Creek Parkway and finally found a spot off of Wisconsin, a few blocks uphill from the Danish Embassy. I don't walk as well as I used to, but I persisted and absorbed the small pleasures of the day. Big anchors at the Naval Observatory. The weather is warmer in D.C. The sun was bright. Embassies reflect the character of their parent countries. The Bolivian Embassy is spare and Spanish looking without ornamentation. The Brazilian Embassy is ambitious and modern, like Brasilia I thought. I didn't know what to expect of the Danes, and I didn't really get to see the Embassy itself. It is set back from the road and somewhat hidden, but there were a lot of people out front.

The place reeked of bloggers, and of Republicans. There were five times as many men as women. Maybe a hundred or two hundred people with a dozen placards, flags or symbolic devices of some sort. One guy had a poster that said "Submit to Havarti", which puzzled me for a while. Another guy had a quote from Hamlet about Elsinor. Conversational snatches were all fascinating. High IQ burbling. I'm shy, but I talked to a few people. Everyone was excited, and I was just happy to be there, among those few who believe in the Freedom of Speech as ardently as the Danes do. I saw Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, both busily engaged in multiple conversations. Bill Kristol was supposed to be there.

Hitchens gave a speech at the end, which was very nice. In particular he pointed out that we, those present, were capable of recognizing true blasphemy and sacrilege when we saw it. Needless destruction of a beautiful place of worship is blasphemy. Political cartoons favoring freedom, and pictures scolding the violent, are not. He suggested that we should be demonstrating at the Iraqi Embassy as well, supporting those who are sacrificing so much more for their freedom. People were ready to go right then, but it wasn't really that sort of crowd.

I stopped Andrew Sullivan and shook his hand before I left. That was something I'll remember. I might have driven to Washington just for that. In the end I just walked back to the car, said a few words to people walking the same direction. But as I walked I saw a beautiful, small pedestrian bridge, built unnecessarily over a grassy ditch. I diagnosed it as a concrete beam bridge with decorative stone facing that gave it the appearance of a slight arch. I crawled under it just to be sure and then crossed over it into the park. It turned out to be a tribute to Kahlil Gibran.

2/25/2006 7:34 PM

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At Sunday, February 26, 2006 4:49:00 PM, Blogger mal said...

I caught the end of an interview with Hitchens on PBS this morning.. he was a competent spokesman for rational thinking I wish I had seen the whole interview

At Friday, March 03, 2006 7:54:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

I missed the interview completely. I've been looking around for it without success, but I did stumble onto this amusing tidbit:

ABC's Sydney 7pm bulletin was replaced by the Victorian version two weeks ago when microphones failed. And Aunty's Lateline also suffered at the hands of the technical gremlins this month, with sound problems creating an embarrassing situation for host Tony Jones during a volatile interview with British author Christopher Hitchens, who couldn't hear Jones and didn't know he was live.

I'd really like to have heard that one.


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