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By Aswathy Kumar
I recently started volunteering at an NGO that educates and promotes the culture and heritage of Azerbaijan. I knew nothing aboutAzerbaijan and honestly when I saw the job posting on the internet, I had to literally go online and find out its exact location. Okay! I agree, I am not proud of my ignorance especially since I consider myself to be among the intelligent group of women who literally dozes off in the company of those who can't think beyond their hair and nails. But this time I was guilty. Except for the fact that it was an Islamic country near Turkey, I knew nothing about this place.
So why did I apply? I must confess that the whole reason why I was online looking for opportunities was because I wanted to get out of my house. I was done being a housewife and it was time to get to work. And since I had to wait at least six months for a work permit, volunteering was the only option I had.
'So why Karabakh Foundation?' The director of the foundation sat across me asking me the reason I was there. I had the answer planned in my head. After all, I had rehearsed it a couple of times before my interview. I would brag about my journalistic experiences and the fact that I am a traveler who loves exploring new countries. I would talk about my experiences in Turkey and how it had fascinated me. I would show how desperately I wanted to know about this exotic country, I knew nothing about. But the only answer that I managed to utter was, 'I am fascinated with Islam?' My answer seemed to surprise me more that it seemed to have surprised the director.
As I walked back home, I kept replaying what I had said in my mind. 'I was fascinated with Islam?' What did I mean?
The following week, I started working. I loved knowing about this new country. I learned about its rich cultural history. I learned all about the great works of Nasimi and Fuzuli. I learned about the Russo-Persian Wars. I learned about Shamakhi dancers depicted in Gagarin's paintings and how he compared these gypsy dancers from Shamakhi to the Indian Devdasis, who used dance as a sign of worship. I learnt all about the interesting Azeri cuisine which I felt had a lot in common with our Indian cuisine. I learnt how Azeris too use several spices like fennel, bay leaf and cinnamon used extensively in Indian cooking. Like Indians, dishes were cooked in earthen pots and copper ware. And both Indians and Azeris marinated their meats in yogurt, lemon and spices. The only difference however was that they did so for different reasons. While the Azerbaijanis believed that doing so would reduce the fat content in their food, for the Indians it was just to add extra flavor (let's admit it...we don't really care about our health now do we?)
In short, I was loving my new job. I was real excited when we had a big event at the foundation where we were welcoming the Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the United States, Elin Suleymanov. I felt happy to be in a work environment and stand with a notepad and a pen taking down notes. I met several interesting people that day and many had questioned my reason for joining the foundation. After all I was the only Indian there. And every time anybody asked me,the only reason I could give them was that I was fascinated with Islam? I said it over and over again. But this time I could give them my reasons.
|Celebrating Eid in Nairobi (2009)|
A few days later I sat in an Indian friend's car trying to explain the reasons for my interest. But in just a matter of few seconds of mentioning, I was bombarded or should I say bullied with cliched terms like male dominance, women oppression, dogmas and religious intolerance.
Agreed there are a lot of things about this religion I dont understand, relate to or even agree with. But that goes the same for Hinduism or Christianity as far as I am concerned. When I say Islam fascinates me, it does not mean I agree that a man should be allowed to bring in another wife or I agree that a woman should not be given the freedom to show her face in public. No!
What many don't understand or realize is that the religious aspect and the dogmas are just a part of any religion. But there is a whole cultural part that many completely tend to ignore. After all isn't this the very same religion that has produced some of the greatest poets of all times like Rumi, Firdawsi and Hafiz. Isn't this the very same religion that has given us some of the most amazing architectural wonders...be it the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta or our very own Taj Mahal. Forget history and poetry...isn't this the very same religion that has given us the best of musicians, artists and painters our country has every known.
I am not a muslim and definitely no expert on Islam. And I do agree that there are many aspects about it that I don't approve. But that goes with any religion. I am a Hindu and proud of it. But that does not mean I agree with the whole concept of literally bribing god every time we want something done. Isn't that what happens in the famous temples in our country where offerings are made even in gold so that we get what we want.
|Diwali 2011: With Zara and Lubna|
For me when I think about Islam, all I can think of is my ever smiling burkha clad Zara back in Nairobi. A mother of three, a Somali yet with a child like innocence I had never seen before. When I think of Islam, I think about my Lubna, scrolling through the beaches of Mombasa clad in her Dolce Gabbana Mini skirt...full of energy, full of life. For all those who use synonyms like hatred and intolerance...let me tell you this...It is these women who taught me the meaning of love, courage, strength and friendship.