Pushing backward, I attempt to protect their frail bodies. ‘You’re killing them!’ I scream…
(I first read this piece on a contest site called FieldReport. Over the years I’ve looked for it, but the site vanished and I could never find the author and his work anywhere else online. Fortunately, my husband had a cut and paste copy that I sent him all those years ago, so that when I heard of the deaths in Mecca, I could read this piece again and share it with you, and slip into the mystery that is humanity and devotion and art…)
The Dust in God’s Eye Thomas Joyce March 2001
Midnight. The moon is full overhead, a flat white disk in an onyx void rising above the maelstrom. A swirling sea of potential accretes into patterns of motion, congeals into protoplasmic organization, dissolves into a sound, an all-consuming idea, a single word that cannot be grasped by intellect.
My teacher, Yassir, told me the Arabic word qutbmeans “axis,” the spiritual center, the point upon which the whole world and all the dervishes spin in perfect tranquility. Not so much a place, he explained, as a state of mind. Fixing my attention on the black Cube, the meteorite set like a great jewel into its Eastern corner—Hajar al-Aswad—is just visible above the newly shaven heads of a hundred thousand ecstatic hajjis spinning around the tranquil eye of the cyclone.
Finally, I understand what Yassir was talking about.
Toeing the line of dark marble that cuts diagonally across the plaza to al-Ka’bah, I salute the meteorite in its silver setting and prepare for tawwaf al’wadah—my farewell circumambulation of Al-Llâh’s house in Makkah—neither spelled or pronounced “Mecca” by any Muslim worth his prayer rug.
Slipping into the interstices between sweating pilgrims, I’m drawn in toward the Cube’s magnetic vortex. By the time I’ve completed the fifth circuit, I’m only twenty feet from the structure, close enough now to see the details of its kiswah,the elegant black-on-black verses from Al-Qur’ân embroidered into the finely woven veil, gently undulating in a breeze generated by heat rising from the whirling bodies beneath its hem. Al-Ka’bah beckons me closer, invites me to reach out my hand and touch its silken veil.
Rounding the horseshoe enclosure called Hijr Isma’il, I look up to see a golden rainspout jutting from the northwestern rooftop of the Cube. As that thunderstorm blew across the Plain of ‘Arafat several days ago, hajjis danced beneath the deluge of water pouring from this spout, baptized in a fountain of bliss. It was the first time in 25 years that rain fell during Hajj. A sign from heaven, everyone said.
Extruded through the transient gaps between bodies, I suddenly find myself pressed up against the cool, sloping foundation of al-Ka’bah. Enormous brass mooring rings are fitted into the stone, and through their holes, a rope—at least ten inches in diameter—is threaded around the perimeter beneath the roughly chiseled granite blocks. Hajjis are perched like circus performers on the rope’s slick hemp, hugging the wall beneath the kiswah, adoring the structure as if it were the very source of life. Laying my palms flat against the wall, I run my fingertips over the strips of yellow-beige marble that appeared from a distance to be golden mortar. The construction is impeccable, every detail crafted with love, every stitch on the veil’s surface inserted with a prayer for perfection—art elevated to the level of worship.
Within ten feet of the meteorite, determination builds to frenzy, an excruciating crush of flesh against flesh. I’m barely able to breathe as a human tidal wave breaks against my chest. At the corner of the Cube, where the silver bezel protrudes from the granite foundation, an eddy of pilgrims washes back against the flow, pressing in all directions at once. But I hold my ground, keep my sites fixed on the glittering silver “eye” into which Hajar al-Aswad is set like a black diamond.
Two feet now—so close—almost within an arm’s length. But there is an old Tajik hugging the silver eye for dear life, his head inserted into the orifice as if he would die of grief were his gnarly fingers to be pried loose. A dozen hajjis are tugging at him, pushing against his brittle, brown body, but he remains rigid, intransigent, obsessed. Watching the old man, feeling his agony as if it were my own, I lose focus, feel myself being ripped away from the wall. The “Nigerian Wedge” thrusts into the gap—a well-practiced, fluidly incisive team of glistening black bodies—shears through the dense pack of pilgrims, finding space where space had not existed a moment earlier. An unstoppable force of nature.
And I scream like one of those absurd cinematic slow-mo sequences where the hero can’t reach the bomb in time—”Nooooo!”—but cannot even hear my own plea above the synchronized chanting of the Nigerians. A human riptide spits me into the eddy beyond the stone and carries me like a helpless shard of driftwood out to sea. I glance up to the soldier on duty above Hajar al-Aswad, clinging for dear life to his leather lanyard, watching indifferently as the old Tajik is brutally slammed backward and sucked into the maelstrom.
But it’s as if some magnetic field draws me back into al-Ka’bah’s shadow, close in beneath its great golden door. Hajjis climb on the ledge beneath to touch its sublime surface, grope upward toward its embossed medallions as if it were Heaven’s own gate. Squeezed against the horseshoe curve of Hijr Isma’il once again, I’m shunted along on the current, beneath mirrored sunglasses masking the watchful eyes of Sa’udi guards. A Turk who has fainted from exhaustion is lifted onto the low wall out of harm’s way by his fellow pilgrims, given water from the Zamzam well beneath the plaza by a soldier in black beret. Rounding the Yamani corner and flattened against the Ka’bah’s eastern wall, I glance upward at a line of pilgrims balancing tentatively on the thick rope skirting its foundation. A Sudanese man smiles blissfully down at me, touches his brown hand to the silken kiswah and then places it on my sodden head like a blessing, a sanction of renewal—a green light.
Six feet to go…four feet…two…Twenty minutes pass in agony; nothing moves. There is only pressure, only an unrelenting equilibrium. A crush of Iraqis men, wearing orange caps and vests, slams in from the south attempting to break through the crowd. Right in front of me, two tiny Bosnian women in delicate whitehijab and lacey decorative bands across their furrowed foreheads are smashed between my chest and the silver eye of Hajar al-Aswad. Pushing backward, I attempt to protect their frail bodies from the onslaught, but all I can do is watch helplessly as their little mouths gasp like drowning birds, their pleas swallowed by the ubiquitous sonic violence. “You’re killing them!” I scream for mercy, but no one cares or hears. Yassir’s face flashes across my overloaded synapses, his fatalistic explanation echoing through my inner ear.
This is Hajj, Tâ-Hâ.
There is no choice but to surrender to the eye of the storm, let go any hope of control. And suddenly—miraculously—the little Bosnian women reach the silver cradle and kiss the black meteorite within like a baby. And then they disappear, swept into waves of groping arms and contorted faces as my fingers wraps around the stone’s silver eyelid, cool to the touch. Other hands try to pry me loose, but that is impossible. No one but Al-Llâh can move me now.
Inches away… all my strength is focused singularly on the point where the metal flange blends seamlessly into the surface of the black meteorite. I can see it clearly now—the stone that fell from heaven—irregular chunks of taupe and flecks of silver glittering in the synthetic halogen sunlight, suspended in a charcoal matrix torn from the recesses of deep space by the same irresistible forces that have drawn me here. The metacarpal joints of my left hand extend beyond their previous range until I feel the smooth irregular surface beneath my fingertips.
And then I slip into the gap, that space between each thought—the still center of the universe—and find myself staring directly into the tranquil qutb, which whispers its secret into my surrendered heart.
Tâ-Hâ, look around you—all these specks of dust, turning and spinning and going nowhere at all. Do you see yourself? But wait! Who is looking? Ah, it isyou—here at the very center of everything—the answer to all your own questions.
Moments before I’m swept back into the vortex, my teacher’s face appears, his smile as bright as the sunrise. And with that light comes the answer I’ve been seeking all my life.
So I scream it at the top of my lungs to every breathless pilgrim scrambling for blessings in the great Haram of Makkah. I scream it to the black meteorite in its silver setting, to the white moon in its boundless heaven, to the One who constantly creates and moves it all. I scream it in laughter and in tears, with a clarity I’ve never felt before. I scream it to everyone who ever doubted me, everyone who thought me a pretender. I scream it to the teacher who saw through my hubris and ignorance, through the dust that clouded my vision until right now.
And mostly, I scream it to myself—so I will never forget. Because, even if only for this fleeting moment of eternity, I know what saints and sages discovered at the end of their long dark nights, what heroes and heretics came to know at the end of all their exploring.
The Truth that shines eternally beneath the dust in God’s eye.
I’m new at this. Not new at experiencing them. But new at knowing I’m experiencing them.
It’s not only that I didn’t have names for my feelings when I was younger,
but that I didn’t fully feel them.
Until I had no choice.
Earlier this week, I found myself humming and singing what has become my tell-tale sad song (it knows I’m feeling sad before I do):
I learned the truth at 17, that love was meant for beauty queens, and pretty girls with clear-skinned smiles, who married young and then retired. And those of us with ravaged faces…
Oddly enough, I was one of those clear-skinned, pretty girls.
But still, this song comes to me more and more as I age, to the point where my youngest, at 15, hears it playing on YouTube for the first time and says: “I like the original better,” not realizing that he’s only ever heard it sung by me.
This is Janis Ian, I say. It’s her song.
I’m relieved when I Google her and find that she’s still alive: and 64, happily through menopause no doubt, even winning a Grammy in 2013!
Mid-life women inspire me. They are such warriors. So full-hearted.
This morning I wake with a crushing weight on my chest. (Well, maybe not crushing. But pressing.)
I’m unable to take a full breath. (I taught yoga yesterday.)
When I consider the day ahead, even the smallest part of the day ahead, I feel immobilized. (It’s a relatively straightforward day.)
I’m expecting my period. And menopause. (Soon, please.)
I stay put and feel into the sensations of weight and panic until they soften enough. I take a shower, pack my work things–while scaling the items shouting for my attention around the house–and I drive away.
I feel lighter.
Until I enter our Co-op grocery store. I decide not to shop first as planned, but instead take a seat in the corner of the cafe and get to work. I always feel good when I work. Almost always. It’s how I’ve kept ahead of anxiety and depression throughout my life, though I never knew that then. I thought I loved work. Until someone said these words:
What you love brings you balance.
Work never brought me balance. It brought me 100-hour work weeks at 20. And teacher burn-out by 30. So I decided to stay home. For two decades.
That didn’t fare well either. I found at-home-motherhood excruciatingly boring. Diapers, dishes, routines. Sitting down on the floor with the kids was the worst. I couldn’t still myself into their worlds. I thought it was play that I resisted, but now I realize that it was me. Without complexity to consume my mind, anxiety devoured me.
I had a window into those years when I went shopping with my son earlier this week. I noticed that if I kept my focus on items that engaged me, say the household aisle of TJ Maxx, then I could keep the anxiety at bay. But if he wanted to talk to me, or worse yet, show me something, particularly something that held no interest for me, my anxiety magnified.
I wonder when it all started.
Is it genetic?
I remember a high fever at the age of 4 and the way the world grew too large and then too small and far away for me to handle.
I remember a fire at the age of 9–the one that took the lives of an entire family except for the boy who went to my school–and how I trembled with that news all night long.
I remember my arm in a sling at age 11, broken on the ice–the result of a mind game that I played often that year–counting down how quickly I could get from place to place–before I blew up.
That would have been sixth grade,
the first year of my mother’s alcoholism,
the year that my father poured the bottles down the sink,
and said, “You have to watch your mother. She’s sick.”
My breath catches on this memory.
The weight on my chest returns.
I see this young girl, and go to her.
I rub her heart, and lift the weight from it.
I’m here, I say. I’ll watch your mother. You go play.
When I was a girl, we moved from the East Coast to the Rockies when I was still a Brownie. My new best friend and nextdoor neighbor Liz wasn’t a Girl Scout, she was a Southern Baptist. Liz went to her church with her family, and I rode the school bus with my younger sisters to another church while our parents slept in.
Mom was an ex-Catholic, and Dad was an Agnostic. They said church was good for us. I read the Bible every night. My very own. It was present for my 8th birthday. (I begged for it.) It had a green leather cover and a tie dye label that (still) reads: KELLY SALASIN–in capitals–which I spelled out, letter by letter, and then printed, with my very first label maker.
Ruth was my favorite book. I read it again and again. Just saying Ruth releases a…
BLUE was my favorite color as a girl. I had a blue coat, a blue 10-speed, and a blue aluminum bat. I’m not sure if I really loved blue or if blue was a statement–AGAINST the color–to which I had been culturally assigned.
When I was 14, we moved once again, and not only was my blue bike stolen, but I was given a room of my own. My very first. (Quite a coup in a family of girls.)
The room was PINK. Not just the walls, and the ceiling, but the floor–a deep shag dipped in every shade of IT.
Each time I stepped inside, it was like drenching myself in a bottle of Pepto Bismol. Even in the dark, and under the covers, I could feel PINK on my skin–sticky and sickly sweet.
We didn’t live in that house for too many years, and I soon had another room of my own which wasn’t pink at all. But in my senior year of high school, when my mother sent me out to pick the Easter dresses (because I always complained about her choices), I surprised us both by returning with matching ones: with tiny pink blossoms.
Later that spring, my prom dress, which had been a deep shade of slinky turquoise the year before, was a soft, airy pink, sewn at home.
In the years to follow, shades of pink continued to slip into my life: a favorite sweatshirt at college that I wore unzipped to my cleavage, a wool scarf bought on the streets of London, a journal with thick pages picked up at a bookstall in France.
By my twenties, ashes of roses was my signature color; and I began to yearn for motherhood.
Early on, my mother warned that I would only be the mother of sons: “You don’t have the patience for girl-like things.”
Intuitives affirmed that my first child was the girl that I wanted, but they were wrong. The second time around, EVERYONE told me that I was carrying a girl, and even when the color blue started streaming through my soul–into my clothes and jewelry–I was certain. But she was a boy too.
When I go to the dentist, I accept the pink toothbrush from our hygienist, instead of the green or purple or blue one, which I would prefer, so that we can easily tell them apart at home.
I’ve had a pink toothbrush now, off and on, for almost 20 years, even when my favorite color returned to blue, and then to purple, and then to soft shades of green.
Just this past week, I decided to invest in another dental care item called a “tongue scraper.” I browsed the aisles of the grocery store until I came upon them, and was relieved to find that these crude looking aluminum objects were softened by colored rubber handles. There were 4 colors available.
Suddenly, I was furious at PINK.
Why me, I thought. Why should I have to have the pink one.
“Mom always takes one for the team,” I recall a waitress saying when I succumbed to sitting at the counter instead of waiting for a table which I preferred.
Suddenly, it occurred to me, at the ripe age of 51, that there was no reason why I should be the one to defer to pink.
I thought back to my nephew, who I spent so much time with before I had children. I took him shopping once and he asked for pink curtains and a potted flower for his new room.
His mom got him a plant and blue shades.
I thought about the baby doll that Santa brought my son at his second Christmas, at how his grandmother bristled when she saw him carrying it around: “Can’t he develop his nurturing skills in some other way.”
There is a green, a blue, a purple, and a pink tongue scraper, and this time around, someone else is taking one for the team.
(except for that new cardigan in my closet)
ps. this video clip arrived in my message box just as I was finishing this post:
I want to write about the 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), but I am terribly under-qualified. (When friends ask what I do when I go to the United Nations each March, I say that I’m a CSW groupie.)
Still, I get to wear one of those official badges with my photo, so I feel pretty cool.
I love the UN. The flags themselves thrill me.
My first visit was in the 7th grade.
For me it was like a candy store of all things international.
A colleague of mine, who IS qualified to write about CSW, and actually worked at the United Nations, says that she got chills every time she turned the corner and saw the flags. For three years, Jennifer she said to herself: “I work here!”
I wish I wanted to work there. It was my grandmother Lila’s dream. She studied French and Chinese at Rutgers in the early forties just before the UN was chartered; but motherhood and marriage interrupted her ambitions.
My colleague Jennifer IS a mother and a wife, and she even has a puppy. Times have changed. May they keep on changing!
That’s what I love about CSW–thousands of WOMEN from every part of the globe.
This year, I found myself particularly wowed by women officials.
They’ve pursued years of education, contributed to hundreds of meetings, poured over thousands of documents…
I have so much gratitude.
Take the Minister for Gender Equality from Poland. Note her amazing hair!
I scribbled pages of notes from her presentation, but what I remember most is how she emphasized that there are three parts to ensuring gender equality:
Suddenly, I understood where I fit in: Consciousness!
Now is as good as a time as any to say that everyone at CSW is speaking ENGLISH:
Professor Fusazara of Poland.
All the members of the Permanent Mission of Japan–who co-hosted this side event.
And all those women–from around the globe–who addressed this panel with probing questions–some of which I couldn’t follow–in my native tongue.
There are dozens of meetings, events, talks, briefings, presentations and panels happening at the same time–morning, noon & night–during the two week stretch of the Commission on the Status of Women–with representatives from Member States , UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs)–from all regions of the world.
We attended the NGO opening reception together–which is even more female-dominated that the CSW meetings at the UN.) Another man was quickly drawn to Lloyd’s side as we waited in line. Rana was from Bangladesh and he went out of his way to compliment me for something I hadn’t considered before:
“Business men bring their sons when they do business,” he said. “Those in development need to bring their sons too. Well done.”
Neither Rana or I had daughters, but we both had work that we referred to in the feminine. Rana came to CSW on behalf of his “daughter”–Udbastu–an NGO he formed to protect the environment of his homeland.
“Udbastu means refuge in Sanskrit,” he explained.
Rana’s passion helped bring mine into clearer focus: I came to CSW for my grandmother, Lila, and for her namesake, my work–the divine lila–the play of consciousness.
Play was a theme I heard echoed at CSW, which was surprising, given the serious nature of activism and advocacy. “Your commitment is sustained when it comes from the heart and when you make it fun,” said Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen at her event: The Indomitable Spirit in Activists and the Archetype of Artemis.
My son teased me about the events I chose to attend during our time at the UN. My choices were based on “feel” and “sense”–a favorite country, a cool angle, a rare connection; while his were shaped around region, policy and planning.
Another event that caught my eye was: Cool Feminism–Exploring Ideas from the North, hosted by the country of Iceland.
The women of Iceland certainly know how to have fun with their activism. When their protest against the Champagne Clubs (that popped around Reykjavík after the 2010 law prohibiting strip clubs) was met by silence from the media and city officials, they got creative.
“We didn’t just whine around the kitchen table,” said Guðrún Jónsdóttir, Founder of Stígamót, a woman’s right organization. “Stígamót opened its own Champagne Club, as a parody.”
They sent invitations to the mayor, to the police commissioner, the ministers, members of parliament, city counselors, and the media.
82 year old Jónsdóttir acted as the club owner and offered to dance. Others offered to sing, tell stories about rape, read the Declaration of Human Rights, and even teach customers how to knit.
Shortly afterward, the Champagne Clubs were shut down and criminal prosecutions ensued.
In her presentation, The Indomitable Spirit in Activists, Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen focused on this capacity that women have–how it grows–over time–and how women learn–from each other. She highlighted the difference between the male and female brain–how women have more connective fibers between the left (analytical) and the right (creative) hemispheres.
‘When the masculine is the only one holding power,” she said, “There can be a lack of empathy and imagination.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee, spoke to this imbalance when she addressed the the rally at the March for Gender Equality at the opening of CSW on International Women’s Day:
Right now the world is functioning like a person trying to see the whole picture with one eye covered. That person is bound to miss some very important details.
Up until this time, I often viewed feminism through the lens of fairness and relational politics so I was a little taken aback when I heard Gertrud Åström, President of the Swedish Women’s Lobby, at the Cool Feminism event, say: Sharing housework is a feminist issue.
But then I got it.
When women’s voices are kept from the conversation–political, corporate, cultural–there are serious human rights ramifications.
Suddenly, issues like equal pay, domestic violence and female leadership came into sharper focus for me–as global and moral imperatives.
Even in a place like Iceland, where gender equality tops the charts, there are outrageous gaps in rights that eclipse the voice of the feminine.
These gaps were brought into stark relief by the speakers at a CSW evening celebration at the Manhattan Center. The Hammerstein Ballroom was packed–floor to ceiling–with representatives, dignitaries and delegates from NGOS around the world.
The beloved UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, addressed the audience of 2,000, followed by UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; and soon after, the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson.
Former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, then took the stage, crediting Johnson’s leadership for stemming the tide of the Ebola epidemic in her country, and then shared information from the Clinton Foundation initiative, Not There Yet—a data driven analysis of gender equality.
Clinton was followed by actress Meghan Markel, the UN Women’s Advocate for Women’s Leadership & Political Participation.
The statistics Meghan shared silenced the room:
At the current rate, the elimination of gender INequality will not be possible until 2095. And when it comes to women’s political participation and leadership – the percentage of female parliamentarians globally has only increased by 11% since 1995. 11 percent in 20 years.
But it was Markel’s personal story of how she “accidentally” became a women’s advocate–at the age of 11–that revealed a deeper truth about gender inequality to me.
There in the balcony, I found myself inexplicably brought to tears when she shared a tagline from a nineties television commercial:
Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.
Markel drove home a bias that was punctuated at CSW: Gender inequality is often dismissed as a cultural issue, while in fact it is form of deep discrimination.
“Women make up more than half of the world’s population and potential so it is neither just nor practical for their voices, for OUR voices, to go unheard at the highest levels of decision-making,” said Markel. “Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, they need to create their own table.”
1100 organizations and 11,000 individuals participated in the 59th Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations this month, on behalf of the 7+ billion women, men and children–around the world.