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2018 Grateful 10

Four weeks in Thailand taught me a lot about myself and how I view the world. I’ve always known that I’m impatient, that I don’t suffer fools lightly, that I have a sometimes irrational fear of getting lost. (But as the inimitable EK has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, I’m never lost if I know what country I’m in.) Thinking myself open to all religions, I was surprised at how out-of-place I felt on the predominantly Muslim island of Koh Yao Noi. I wasn’t expecting anyone but Buddhists, given that the country is predominantly Buddhist, and perhaps had I done my research, I’d have been better prepared, mentally prepared, but I was caught on the hop for the complete reversal in statistics: 96% Muslim.

I found myself wondering if I was dressed appropriately. Tank tops and vests were out but could I show my shoulders if wearing a knee-length dress? How long did my shorts have to be? Should I cover my head? I didn’t want to offend. I was very much aware that when in Rome … Buying booze in the village and being handed it in a black plastic bag accompanied by a frown of disapproval had me feeling like an errant teen trying to pull a fast one. I felt a strange unease at hearing the call to prayer as I lay on the beach, no doubt scantily clad by someone’s yardstick. That other tourists had no problem walking around in shorts and vests made no odds. I wasn’t feeling awkward for them – just for me. I missed the Buddhists and their temples. Those I felt almost at home in. Not here. And yet it was nothing anyone did or said. They couldn’t have been nicer. The smiles, though timid, were real. The welcome, while not effusive, was there. I wondered if I’d become conditioned to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and had absorbed some of the irrational fear it aims to induce.  I had a major rethink on my hands.

A few days in Doha on the way back added to my mental angst. But for that, I was prepared. I knew I was entering a Muslim country and had rejigged by thought patterns accordingly. I wasn’t walking around in shorts or sunbathing on a beach. I was covered. I had a handle on it. I was struck by the numbers – 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants are expats. Foreign. There are twice as many Indians as there are Qatari, with a fair representation from Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria and more. Fascinating. Such diversity. And yet the diversity wasn’t as obvious as I’d have expected, lost as it is in the religion. The majority are Muslim.

The Muslims I know are moderate in their religious practice, a lot like the pick-and-mix Catholic I am. And the Koran, like the Bible, is open to selective reading. [I came across this fascinating article in the Telegraph What the Koran really says about women.] Yet I’d never choose to live in a country whose societal rules and norms differed vastly from what I am used to. Azerbaijan and I didn’t part friends. But India and I have a lovely relationship. The outward trappings of the Muslim world are difficult for me to understand, to get to grips with. Would I want to feel this level of discomfort in my own country? No. Do I want to wake up one morning and find my church bells drowned out by calls to prayer? No. (I wonder, though, what that would sound like and if they could be scheduled at different times?) Do I want to find myself in a minority? No. Does that make me anti-migrant? Does it make me racist? Does it make me intolerant? I have a pain in my head trying to figure it all out.

The Dalai Lama was accused of bigotry when he suggested that refugees return to their home countries to help rebuild them and leave Europe for Europeans. It surprised me when I heard what he’d said, particularly as he himself is a refugee. Is that what this is about? The difference between migrant and refugee? The former someone who chooses to resettle to another country in search of a better life, the latter someone who has been forced to flee their home country because of armed conflict or persecution. I understand the Dalai Lama’s comments to mean that refugee status is temporary, until the situation at home is resolved and people can return safely. Migrant status seems more permanent. I’m an economic migrant, I should know.

As a new wave of refugees set forth on a long journey towards a better life, I’m here examining my conscience and giving serious thought to what’s going on in South Korea on the island of Jeju where Yemeni refugees are getting a less than hospitable welcome from conservative Christian groups. Yes. Those who by virtue of their faith should be welcoming are crying Go home. There’s no room at the inn.

I read the NYT and watched a short video following one woman heading from Honduras to what she hopes will be a better life in the USA. Another from Channel 4 following the caravan currently walking through Mexico. The debate about asylum seekers and economic migrants rages and the media are playing to the gallery. Could there be would-be terrorists in these groups? Certainly. Just as there could have been on the plane from Bangkok or Doha or anywhere. But is it really terrorists or migrants or refugees or Muslims or conservative Christians (or….) that we are afraid of? Or is it simply the uncertainty of the times in which we’re living? Would we prefer to switch back to our pre-globalisation days where few people travelled abroad and letters took weeks to arrive? What is that we’re really afraid of?

This week, I’m grateful that travel makes me question what I take for granted. That it forces me to examine not only what I think but why I think it. And that both, in turn, give me a more balanced take on the world.

 

 

 

 

 

A grave difference

Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds,  were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight.  Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world.

This Moslem cemetery dates back to the 15th century and is known for its Ottoman Turbe (or dome-like tombstones posted on four pillars). Here, many respected citizens lie beside travellers.  The cemetery is also a  Musafirsko cemetery (from the Turkish word musafir or traveller) where visitors who die while visiting the city are buried. There’s no such thing as shipping bodies home. Because of the rules about a quick burial, it’s traditional to bury a Muslim where they die.

The stark white tombstones brought to mind a military graveyard, like the one at St Avold in France. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation that is so visible in Christian and Jewish cemeteries I’ve visited gave this cemetery a different feel. Cars drive through but yet as a pedestrian, I found it difficult to wander and I wondered briefly how much clambering would have to be done to get to a particular grave. And do people actually ever visit?

There was a marked absence of flowers and candles and the other accoutrements that adorn Christian burial sites. I found this strangely relaxing. Unlike the cemetery in Zagreb, where many of Croatia’s famous sculptors have their work still on show, Alifakovac Cemetery has few monuments of note. Simple inscriptions mark narrow white pillars. Bodies are interred on their right side, facing Mecca, preferably not inside a coffin. I was curious to know more, so I Googled and found this: There is some debate about whether women can visit the grave of a loved one to remember him. While some Muslims say that this is forbidden, others think it’s OK to occasionally visit the grave site to remember the deceased and meditate on mortality. There was no one at the cemetery the day I visited. No one but me.

Down in the old town, nestled between cafés and restaurants lies another cemetery. It seemed strange to sit and drink a coffee within reach of a headstone but I was the only one who appeared to be remotely bothered. I found this juxapositioning of life and death a little disturbing and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was a lack of reverence for the dead. Or the complete, unquestioned acceptance of the role of death in life. Or simply the incongruity of the tombstones and the canopies.

In the grounds of the Vekil Harč Mustafa mosque are more tombstones. A few weeks ago, during a visit to Ráckeve in Hungary, I came across Prince Eugene of Savoy. And here, in Sarajevo, I found him again. Following his campaign in 1679, a great fire swept through Sarajevo and this mosque was damaged, but quickly repaired. The tombstones we see here are known as  nišan tombstones.

Sarajevo seems to be at home with death. Perhaps its tumultuous history has a lot to do with this acceptance. As for me – I’m torn between the Muslim simplicity and the monuments favoured by Christians and Jews.

Walking amongst the dead in Zagreb

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I have what some might call a morbid fascination with cemeteries. And prisons.  I often wonder if I somehow see the two related. While others wander through the art galleries and museums of this world, I spend my time in graveyards reading epitaphs wondering about the lives of those who’ve gone before me and those they’ve left behind. Dean Martin’s tombstone reads: Everybody loves somebody sometime. Bette Davis’s: She did it the hard way. But my favourite has to be Spike Milligan’s: Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill). Way back in the good old days of the Wild West, when death was completely random and a sense of humour prevailed to the last, some classic epitaphs can still be found. Lawyer John E. Goembel: The defense rests. Auctioneer Jedediah Goodwin : Going, going, gone.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

I’ve often wondered at a particular choice of gravestone and have given some consideration to what I’d like mine to be and what I’d like it to say – if I’m not cremated. I’m undecided.

It was in Macugnaga, in the Italian Alps, that  I first saw a photograph encased in glass on a gravestone. I thought it rather strange that someone would want their photo displayed, but as I walked around the small cemetery, the idea grew on me. It was like visiting a place where people, though dead, were still very much alive in spirit…you could put a face to the bones buried beneath.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

In Warsaw some years later, in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street, I was struck by the notion of adding a person’s occupation the gravestone – but is this so strange? In life, some of us become our profession and lose sight of who we are as people, so why not carry this identity with us and go the grave proclaiming what we were.

In a Russian Orthodox graveyard in Eklutna, Alaska, each grave has a spirit house, built as a new home for the soul of the deceased. In Manchester, UK, some Irish traveller families have erected huge, gigantic marble monstrosities that seem be in some strange posthumous competition with each other – keeping up with the Joneses well after all the Joneses are dead.

Mirogoj cemetry, Zagreb

Until a recent visit to Zagreb, I’d never been to a non-denominational cemetery  – or at least, I am not aware of ever having been in one. The cemeteries with which I am familiar tend to be strictly segregated – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Russian Orthodox. The idea of mixing religions in death strikes me as ironic considering the trouble various religions have living side by side.  Mirogoj cemetry has been very much inclusive since it first opened its gates in 1876. The work of Hermann Bollé, it’s a beautiful spot, with a series of ivy-clad cupola’d arcades running along the inside walls. It’s home to Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, communist Partisans and the German dead from WW2. Crescent moons, Jewish stars, and RC crosses adorn the gravestones. Rows and rows of grave-lined paths diverge from the main gate. There’s a computer kiosk where you can key in the name of the person you are looking for and it’ll tell you where go to. Without this, it would be practically impossible, or, take days to find it for yourself.A couple of years go, on Achill Island off the west coast of Ireland, I visited a famine graveyard. Simple, overgrown, and wild, it was a stark reminder of an Ireland that is in danger of being forgotten.  A story book of life and death, a living testimonyof times gone by. In South Africa earlier this year, I stumbled across a cemetry from the Boer War. I’d never realised how many nations were involved in this particular fight. But it too, like the famine, seems so very long ago. Mirogoj cemetery is different. It is home to row after row of men my age who died in the Yugoslav wars. My age. My age. In another life they might have been my brother, my husband, my best friend. And while they were dying for the promise of a better tomorrow, I was living in Alaska, in my own little world, completely unaware of what was going on Europe. We speak of living in a global village but in truth, we are worlds apart. Einstein nailed it when he said: the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know.