Urdu* for “understanding”

Abdullah Syed’s “Flying Rug,” made of United States $1 bills shaped like American drones and arranged in carpetlike patterns, from “The Rising Tide.”

I have been traveling in Northern Pakistan recently, climbing through the high-altitude stories of mountaineer and school-builder Greg Mortenson.  His intense expeditions reside in some of the most inhospitable places of the world, where man is reduced to tiny specs on a map in comparison to the mighty, towering mountains- the tallest in the world- that jut up from the earth erect, proud, and unforgiving.  His journey from a young mountaineer-turned-humanitarian is outright staggering: the quest of one white man to build schools for girls in Muslim Pakistan where schools and supplies are as far from sight as sea-level.  He forges relationships with local tribal leaders, learns the language, and perseveres in a way that is challenging to comprehend.  The story is rich, and better yet, it is real.  He (and David Oliver Relin) tell it in “Three Cups of Tea.

My mind has actually been wandering in South Asia for a few months now, even prior to sitting down with Greg’s cup of tea. A friend who experienced Nepal this summer shared some travel stories with me that managed to make me feel grateful I was not there with him!  But they were the stories that give you a sense of place, that illustrate the severity of the terrain.   Here’s an excerpt from his e-diary while on a trip to the mountains north of Katmandu:

“We hiked through the mountains to visit some nomad friends of Chris.  If you think the previous description sounded hard core, these guys were off the charts.  No permanent structure.  Wood frames covered with plastic to keep out the monsoon that I described.  They are cattle breeders.  Tough as nails.  Chris calls them “mountain ballers” because they live in insane conditions, and quite frankly lead an amazingly comfortable life.  But for me it was challenging.  Sleeping on cedar and pine needle floor next to two sick cows (who urinated at will on the floor), eating nothing but starch, stepping out into pouring rain, tromping through a field of cow manure to pee, etc.  Things never really get dry for them this time of year, but you’d be surprised how warm it can get inside the structure (called a “gote”).  They carry around this type of knife called a kukkrhi, which is something like a machete.  Even though we were near 14,000 feet, the mountains here are literally jungle, not like the Rockies in the US.  It’s because they receive so much rain and are near the equator, so it doesn’t get too cold.  Actually they aren’t even considered mountains in Nepal, they are called the ‘high hills’.”   -Doctor B.

And it is from this same region that the awe-inspiring sand mandalas are created by Tibetan Buddhist monks. Weeks ago I had the opportunity to witness a masterpiece made by monks on residency at The Hammer Museum.  Visiting on the last day of the exhibit allowed for a viewing of the completed work as well as experiencing  the dissolution ceremony. K.D. Lang was there, and she handed me bits of colored sand in a little glass vile to keep after they had been blow and scattered into nothingness.  Only in L.A.    Impermanence preserved.

It’s these pieces of culture that help us understand a far-away land, tiny insights into something otherwise foreign and often misunderstood.  An Islamic scholar who frequently participates in the ALOUD series at work recently commented that, after ten or so years of scholarly debate, research, academic engagement, political analysis and attempted negotiation in the Middle East, he was giving up on all of the above as a means to tolerance and understanding.  He had succumbed to the realization that it simply was not possible through such means.  His experience has led him to believe that art and culture are THE only ways to help people understand those different from them.  Through the literary and visual arts, music and dance, there is a path.

That said, I leave you with a slide show and article from last weekend’s New York Times featuring a contemporary art show in Pakistan, where “the works reflect the many strands of the urban condition.”   I hope these threads wove together a mini-trip for you, to the land where the earth strives to touch the heavens.

*Urdu is one of many languages spoken in Pakistan (and India) but not the language of the peoples who live along the Indus River in Northern Pakistan where Greg’s stories take place.  They speak Pashto there, but I wasn’t able to find an easily decipherable translation for “understanding” in that language so opted for Urdu, as it was one of the ‘Google translate’ language options.


~ by maureenmoore on December 23, 2010.

3 Responses to “عقل”

  1. What a rich post, Maureen, of what you’ve been feeling, seeing, thinking all through the lens of your cultural knowledge and the seasoning of your travels. We’re lucky to have you posting from Los Angeles, settling down here for this period of your life. Impermanence. Hope. Risk. Understasnding.

  2. How timely your post, Mosey, during this season that has been co-opted by so many for as many different reasons. Your friend’s travel e-diary and the Islamic scholar’s findings are just two of a number of personal experiences that best illustrate “understanding” and I applaud your efforts for sharing them and sharing so effectively. ~Auntie TFJ

    P.S. The mandala is beautiful; all sorts are found throughout India (I believe the term used there is “rangoli”) from the modest ones gracing the householder’s front entry (Alka has created some lovely renditions are her front sidewalk) to the elaborate ones inside temples. Plan on joining me on my next trip there!

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