Of Gypsies and an Open Hand

I surely should write a book. At least to let the world know about the people I encounter. I cant write much now. I have acquired my first Indian wound, my first Cashmere wound. I fell in the middle of the Kashmir mountains and opened my hand. Not much. Enough to remind one that any disturbance on the normal balance of a body changes it all. Enough to remind you that blood comes out, and alcohol burns like hell even when you think you are much tougher than a child. Enough to make you loose your balance when trekking though the Cashmere mountains.

I have said this before but I will repeat I am no trekker, so every time I do invent to join one the part of me who does not want to be in a situations I cannot get of screams. This voice is however becoming more and more silent and so I joined the trek through the mountains. I slept under the stars, in the plains of a mountain, surrounded by the gypsies with whom I could not do more than smile to, share food, and take pictures of. My abundance of happiness is noted even by them. An older lady held me, and asked to be photographed with me, than she pointed to my mouth than to hers, and drew a smile in the air. I know. I know I smiled I said.

I have been meeting many gipsies as I participated in a distribution of donated clothes through these remote villages of muddy houses. They are so beautiful. Long eyelashes and beautiful smiles. The girls have often short hair till they are ten. They are nomadic and you can see that as the winter is probably about to come they are getting ready to move. I love Kashmir. I finally understood why is it that my friend Maya and her boyfriend Lior insisted so much that I should come. It is not that I love here because the views are stunning, the mountains are full of pines, there is sheep everywhere, horses, lakes, river. The natural beauty is phenomenal. But that is not what I love though. I love that nothing is what you imagine it to be. I love the intricacies. The time that it takes to understand the secrets. You must not be in a hurry. You must not take anything too serious and then you might start to see that secret world of competing loyalties. And once you do, they take care of you. I am invited to the houses, to their privates trips. “Dont go. stay. Dont be like a tourist stay here for at least a month”. I smiled thankfully. Shaban my friend and guide told me last night that his dream was to be educated, to go to university, to read books. But the war did not let it happen so he learns through us the travelers. The ones who talk to him. Today as I sat around the plane in the middle of the gipsy settlement. As he gently poured for me, Arwen and him the delicious Kashmir tea he asked me whether I wanted to hear sufi poetry. We did. He took his cel phone and read quotes from poems sent from a friend. They talked of God. The coexistence of a cel phone, God, kashmir tea, in a gipsy settlement made me smile. The world is such a fascinating place.

I for instance travel now with an Israeli guy, and a English girl. I wish I could write a boook so that I could write about them. Arwen, who has the name of an elf, has a life history that is not short of epic. It starts with a grandfather who was black from Barbados and lied to the crew of a sugar cane boat when he was 14 (saying he was 18) to come to England. Collin Jones, was liked by the captain who taught him how to read. Her grandmother, a welsch woman who ran away to marry a black man and was shut from her entirely family. Well, so thought her father, as usual what people say and do is different. So she was shut but Arwens father remembers his whole family 🙂 Collin who was a very ambitious man left to buy milk when Arwen father was 15 and only retruned 16 years later rich and with a new wife. Arwen mother ran away from Cataluna. A story of runaways looking for meaning, and life abroad. I could go on and on, but my muscles in my hand remind me I should speak of Elick as every little nerve is already to tired to type.

Elik is even more fascinating. He who was raised orthodox studying a million hours a day of religion must have read every book in the face of the earth. That is what he did. He read religious books and then literature and philosophy. The laws of Judaism prevent them from doing everything so he lived in books till he could finally have the hardest conversation in his life. He had not faith he had to leave the Yeshiva. The laws made no sense to him anymore. His kindness generosity and enormous knowledge have become my gate into understanding a world I knew nothing about. In fact a world, I was very prejudicial of. So every single question I have from reading books, watching films are now answered as they pop in my mind. The world of the religious, the world of the Yeshivas, the world of Kabalah as well as of traditional Jewish law. The world of Jewish philosophy. But I cant possibly write about this world. I can barely understand it, and something way more mundane prevents me from doing it. My hand hurts. And I have learned that we must respect the religious, the books, the philosophers but also being here has taught me more and more that I must simply hear the internal voice. The one that said to me while I climbed the mountain carrying wood to make a fire. The one that said ” climbing is tough enough for you maybe you should respect your level”. I did not hear it at that time, I pushed it a bit further, I lost my grip, I lost my attention, the wood went down, my whole body collapsed and my hand in the attempt to stop me open itself a bit… not too much, just enough to remind me that strength and fragility lay hand in hand, and that the deepest knowledge comes from within.

Lots of love,

Mughal Gardens, Srinagar

When Luiza and I separated from Francis in the Mosque in the last day of Ramadan he made a friend. Ulmar, a 26 year old Kashmir boy, fully dressed in white, took Francis to the middle of the thousand of men and taught him how to pray. Francis who is catholic and a strong believer saw our reencounter with Ulmar the following night in the middle of the streets of Srinagar as an auspicious sign. Ulmar’s whole family was with him, and we were invited to join them for a meal. Luisa and I declined as we were exhausted, Francis disappeared for 3 hours only to return drank of joy, full of food for us, and an invitation to come see the city with Ulmar the following day.

Ulmar picked us up and first took us to the impressive Jama Masjid Mosque that was built in the 1672 and has room to host thousands of devotees. Luiza and I fully covered to be allowed to enter the place. Inside it was empty, there were but a few people, an enormous courtyard, a beautiful garden, and a couple of children running around. At 12:30 it was lunch time and we were invited by Ulmar to go to his house for this meal. For the second time I met his adorable mother, who the night before in the street had given me a tight hug. They were so happy to have us. I could barely understand why. And so for the second time this week I saw a Kashmir house. It seems to me that they usually do not have that much furniture. This house was beautiful, but every living room had anything but beautiful and confortable carpets and cushions. We sat on the floor. Tea was offered. There was an option between salted or sweet chai. Once again I feasted in the delicious Kashmir infusion. Some cinnamon, cardamon, ginger, saffron and who knows what else. We could only talk to Ulmar and his brother, but the parents were the calmest and friendliest people i have encountered here. Most of the time I find people in Srinagar rather violent. i have lost count how many times i saw parents and children shouting, or children being hit, or playing with plastic uzis, and guns. I have lost count of how many times firecrackers explode from the hands of 6 years old. I have lost count of how much boys parade their masculinity in motorbikes in the streets. So this family, which was sooo calm was something of a relief.

Food was brought and I being a vegetarian was somehow of a disappointment to them. Not that they mentioned it but I could tell, as I would not be able to eat all the variety of meat they had. A plastic towel was set on the floor, a silver jar was brought to wash our hands over a silver recipient, and plates with rice and meat were brought. For me there was rice and some delicious green thing I never even asked what it was. We ate in traditional way, which means we seat on the floor, and ate with our bare hands. It was delicious.
The little 5 year old girl was the joy of the house. She seemed to be hyper active and slightly odd fro her age. The entire time we were there she ran non stop, and turned upside down hysterically happily. Ulmar explained to me that she never went to bed before 1am and that she was always up before 6.” She is very special” he said. I was shocked beyond belief, but apparently the whole family seems to have created this space to treat strangeness as normality. They loved her beyond belief.
At some point I was so in place that I wished i could have stayed their forever. We could not, Ulmar had planned to take us to see the famous Mughal Gardens.

I cant possibly explain how incredible that was. I who forgot my camera kept thinking how would i be able to remember this all. A beautiful garden, with enormous flowers, green grass, fountains, going uphill and abundance of colours of the flora and the people. Children, boys and girls, teenagers, adults and the elderly were everywhere. As usual dressed using all of the shades that you can encounter in the world. So many veils, and cloths, and I could hear hear the leaves hum to me about the secret looks between boys and girls, the discrete movement of the veil that allowed for a bit more of hair to be seen, the recognition of one more bloom by the older gardner, the mundane worries of the couple having a picnic, the hopes for a boy of the pregnant lady, the wishes of those who walked in the sacred water, the peacockish dares of the young boys, the sufi poem read under a tree. I could almost hear and see it all, how many secret hopes were growing in that garden made in name of love.

As we sat in the grass we were surrounded by curious eyes. Children who are less shy would come and greet us. Adults would just look. Ulmar and his cousin wanted to know about Brasil. they talked of god, of the difficulty of getting married. They talked of a desire for independence from India and Pakistan, they talked of broken hearts and cried, just like in Palestine they were interested in talking about sexuality. We let them do so. We answered their questions, we were surprised by the lack of information, and once again I was saddened by the feeling of boredom, solitude and hope for love and freedom these youg boys seem to have. Eventually it was time to go, it was time for me to bid farewell to two more travelling companions. Luisa and Francis decided to take up the offer to sleep in Ulmar place as they would fly the morning after and Ulmar kindly offered to drive them. I hesitated whether to follow them or not, but as I was waiting from a little sign from the universe to decide my fate i came back to my guesthouse.

There I met Elic, an Israeli, who is going to places in the countryside i did want to see, but did not want to go alone to. A physicist who had been raised in a religious yeshiva. A jewish religious boy who abandoned religious life in his mid 20s. Within 5 minutes of conversation I knew he would be my new travelling companion based on nothing else than the fact that he talked to me about Alyosha. Sometimes we look for signs in the wrong places, so since Dostoyevski has yet never failed me, i decided to follow my journey a bit deeper into Kashmir with this quite atypical Israeli. It is quite unlikely I will have internet access on the following days, but once I do I ll tell you what I discovered.

Lots of love,

The End of Ramadan, Kashmir

The End of Ramadan

So the last day of Ramadan has come and I am here in Srinagar in Kashmir. We woke up and decided we would go to the the main mosque to see the prayers. Mustapha one of the houseboat owners. Mustapha who cooks better than anyone. He who is the most responsible and serious of all brothers recommend me and Luisa not to go. He thought It could be dangerous as in the last couple of days lots of Kashmere boys have been attacking the police. Yesterday all motorbikes had been confiscated and 300 boys arrested. It was possible that conflicts could arise. He would take Francis, but thought it would be safer for me and Luisa to stay in the boat. I considered the idea for about 10 seconds and then thought: there is no way the whole town is going to pray to celebrate eyd and I will be floating in the Dal lake!

So we went. People along the way told us we would not be allowed in to visit the mosque. Today, they explained, was a very important date for Muslims. Only when I explained I wanted to see the people, the ritual, did they understand we were not simply interested in architecture of the Mosque. So our rickshaw driver took us about 15 km away to Hazratbal Mosque which enshrines Kashmir most precious relic- moi e muqqadas- a hair of the beard of the prophet mohammed.

As we drove the traffic became crazier and crazier. all men were dressed in white, all women dressed in different colourful colours. As we came closer we could see more and more police and army around. Beautiful tall soldiers carrying machine guns. Barbed wires, rikshaws passing through small spaces, motorbikes carrying evem more people than they usually do. Eventually we reached a point we could not go further driving so we got out and started to walk following the multitude of people.

Suddenly we started to see people laying on the floor crippled, with leper, very skinny, burned, dying, not moving begging. Muslims walked giving money at the people. It was a shocking site. i truly felt like in a movie. The closer we got more intense was the begging, the suffering, the touching. As I veiled, and so did Luisa we were not so much held as was the blond blued eyes Francis. We were speechless. We just followed the people not knowing where we would end up.

Eventually we reached the fields that surround the Mosque. There was police, army, metal detectors, thousands of people and only two doors. One for the the women, one for the men. i was convinced they would tell us to come another day. instead they let us in. A tall sikh looking like soldier came to ask us what we were doing there. francis said he would try to pray and I said I wanted to see. He let us in but made us promised we would be back there in 30 minutes. And so we separated, women to one side, men to the other. Luisa and I followed the rainbow of cloth in front of us,till we had to remove our shoes, then we sat next to the women outside. There were tens of thousands of people there. We strolled a bit more, completely fascinated. As we had promised the guard we would be back in half an hour to the entrance we walked back to meet Francis who had gone to the other side.

As he was not there we sat in the middle of the garden watching thousands of men stand. Suddenly the call for prayer started. We saw thousands of men in white, in line stand and then bow, than prostrate and do the whole ritual. We saw that among the soldiers there were sikhs and hindus, and also muslims who ran in the middle of their duty to honour Allah. We watched moved and in silence. When the prayers finished we could feel the tension in the air be substituted by joy. Children played with enormous plastic guns, for the first time since I arrived I could see people now eat during the day.

As we walked out, with the thousands of people we realised we did not know the address to go home. As in magic among 60 thousand people Rafiq found us. Francis climbed the top of a bus and I died to do the same. I knew however i had already done all that i could today so instead i thanked Mustapha and Rafiq for the ride. We came home and they offered us their celebration meal.
Eyd Mubarak to all my Muslim friends!