Last night I brought my husband and son to a Sufi center in Boston. We took the subway to this neighborhood full of beautiful brick row houses. We rarely come here. It is out of our way and we live on oppossite schedules, a childcare tag team. It was cold and raining. We were late and I felt a late winter flu taking over my body – weak muscles, chills, stuffy nose. We walked quickly through the rain and I was worrying about the lateness – I hate being late.
We finally arrived and I rang the doorbell. There was some awkwardness, some nervous comedy as we struggled up the slippery steps with our enormous stroller. When we we couldn’t fit the thing in the door, our host called to a younger man to help my husband. Meanwhile, Son and I disappeared into the warm and silent front hall, removing our jackets and shoes, placing them on the shelves and in the closets our host pointed to as we made our way to the large majliss.
At some point I stopped to shake hands with my host. What I saw was a small aging man. I already knew he was Iranian. He was dressed like any American grandfather, though, in a pair of light blue jeans – coming up high at the waste – and a zip-up windbreaker. He wore clean, bright white gym socks. And I noticed the softness of the carpet under my feet.
We came here seeking (again) some solace in Islamic practice. In my typical fashion – nomadic, as some have called it – I have been unable to settle myself into a spiritual practice. Ever. I chased yoga for years – hoping I would be the enlightened yogi my friends came to see me as – but I was not. My yoga practice served me in many ways but for many little reasons that may come up as reach deeper into this blog, it became clear to me that yoga wasn’t going to be the long term medium of my spiritual practice.
I have thought and written at great length about the transition from yoga to Islam – which came after almost a decade spent living in North Africa, Turkey and the UAE. Much of it was situational: the practicality and relevance Islam held in my life as I adopted the cultural consciousness of these places, married a Moroccan man and built friendships with other born Muslims from Islamic cultures. Now my husband and I and our 17 month old son have been in the US for just under two years. Occupied with settling ourselves, finding work finishing my Master’s degree and making a home here, we have not had a moment to build a spiritual community around us. My personal practice is once again elusive and erratic while I see signs of spiritual despair in my husband as well. I decided, with a little help from a friend, to seek community in a Sufi group. I chose this one because they showed up first when I googled, the photo of their majliss was beautiful, and because they have twice weekly meditations, one of which meets on a night that both my husband and I are free. When I began emailing the center, a certain Mohammed began emailing back and urged us to come visit him on a night when the group would not be meeting.
So here we are, I have just observed Mohammed’s white socks, noticed the soft carpet beneath my feet and my husband has come bounding up the stairs from where he left the stroller at the basement entrance. There is so much quiet. We go into the majliss and Mohammed disappears into the kitchen to make tea. Our son, at this moment, goes completely wild. He begins running up and down the length of this beautiful room, bookshelves filled with Sufi literature, floors outfitted in thick carpeting – the only seating in the room is pillows organized against the walls all the way around the room. He yips and yells, shouts and squeals. Mohammed emerges from the kitchen with tea and sits silently indicating for us to join him on the floor. Meanwhile, our son runs to grab a large framed photo sitting on a low table at the front of the room, presumably of the sheikh, or the Sufi master of this Sufi order. He notices a sound system with buttons, knobs and wires and lunges for it, he goes to the kitchen, he comes back, he tries again for the photo….My husband and I chase him, hold him, try to walk with him, try to show him things, offer him snacks, dates, tea, milk, anything to distract him and all while trying to maintain calm peaceful faces, like this is no big deal, like we are not embarrassed or exhausted, sick or annoyed.
The entire meeting went like this. Mohammed began to ask us a few questions about where we had come from, what brought us to the Sufi center and so on. He explained that the center holds silent dhikr – meaning “remembrance” in Arabic – a Sufi meditation practice which often invloves reciting one or many of the 99 names of Allah (Al Asma Al Hossna) in repetition in a way not unlike yogis chanting the sanskrit scriptures. Members of this Sufi order also volunteer at a homeless shelter, cooking for the people who come, offering them companionship, sometimes gifts at Christmas time or other special occasions. He talked about tawhid, the oneness of God. He quoted Rumi – I can’t remember the exact words now -but he said that if we have 100, we don’t need 99. If we have God, we have it all. And Mohammed went on at length about love – the love for Allah that is all – that equals the love for others and for yourself.
He was quiet and unsmiling most of the time but still managed to look kind. As our son thrashed about and we took turns chasing him, Mohammed manged to continue his explanation softly and slowly, speaking to whichever one of us was sitting in front of him at the moment.
My husband slipped into the bathroom with our son to change his diaper.
Mohammed asked me how I felt about what I was hearing. He asked me if I was interested in the Sufi center and I told him that I was. He said that if I wanted to take care of anyone else, I would have to take care of myself first. He encouraged us to come to the group dhikr, but suggested that we could call to make appointments to come at other times if our family obligations made it impossible to make the group meetings. I felt tears well up in my eyes as he said these things so I looked down, took a sip of tea, and we sat there silent until my son burst back into the room, ready for another round.
Somehow we left. Mohammed, it seemed, could have sat there all night, but we needed to get home. The young man who helped with the stroller appeared again. He told us he was from Bahrain, we shared some knowing looks and evaluative comments about other Arabian Gulf countries and he exchanged some Arabic conversation with my husband. The stroller got stuck in the doorway again and at the end of another scuffle, the three of us spilled out onto the street, speeding through the chill of the night toward the subway station.
To be continued…