Among the worrywarts who warned me not to spend my month in Afghanistan, two bits of advice prevailed:
Don’t say you are an American and don’t say you are Jewish.
God knows I tried. But except for one moment, surrounded one night by a group of unfriendly males, I always said I was American. And, as Muslims went to great lengths to demand respect for their acceptance of all religions, a spirit of inquiry required that I test that on occasion by adding, an American Jew.
Muslim tolerance of all paths, I found conditional. When pressing the UK-born female tour guides in Dubai and Sharjah mosques, it was suggested that all religions were honored. “What about Hinduism and Buddhism?” In both cases, the previously pollyanaish guides bristled and said those were not real religions, with all their deities and whatnot. Ah, so someone gets to decide.
Opinion is fine. Opinion doesn’t matter. What matters is tolerance. You can think that failing to give that mendicant an extra shekel will encourage the wrath of Kali or Shiva, or that you have a good angel on one shoulder and a bad one on the other, or that God brought down the walls of Jericho so that the Israelites could murder every man, woman, child, ox, sheep and goat. But don’t impose it on me.
The skinny fellow standing next to me in the shower at the Kabul swimming pool went on about the caliphate and how all will one day live under Sharia law but it’s all cool because all religions will be respected, even though mine has EXPIRED since the revelation of the Holy Quran. I reminded him that we Jews INVENTED all that shit about the Chosen People and the Prophets, and exclusive ownership of the Word of God, and that American evangelicals want their brand of religion spread worldwide, the difference being that Americans have much bigger guns and a lot more of them, so be careful what you wish for.
Leaving Kabul is the most security-intensity experience you will ever have. I lost count, but I think there were ten separate frisks, security scans, interrogations. Farshid kindly insisted I stay for lunch and allow his driver to take me to the airport, which left ninety minutes to flight time. By the time of the final pass through of my backpack, it was getting too close enough for comfort.
I had no contraband so had no reason to be delayed, but a suited security officer grabbed my bag and walked me over to a table. “Where are the stones?” he demanded. “What stones?” I had no idea what he was talking about. My mujeheddin friend from Herat tried to convince me to market gems back in the States but I declined to take any samples.
“The stones?” he said, angrily demanding that I open my backpack. And there they were. Three sets of prayer beads. One, bought from Mohammed, the carpet man. One, from my friend in front of City Center who kept trying to sell me jewelry “for your girlfriend.” And the third, a beautiful gift from the staff of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque.
“What religion are you?” he demanded. I already queered my India visa application by refusing to answer that same question. In Other, I penciled in, Pastafarian. With minutes to go before my flight to Delhi, this was no time to explain the theology of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But after a month of no menorahs, no Christmas trees, no Santa Claus, and a few “We’re Number One!” parochial Islam rants, I answered,
“That’s none of your business.”
He bristled. “I’m a Muslim. It is my business.” He waited for my answer.
I could have told him that I received the beads as a gift from the most honored mullah in Afghanistan, who spent two hours with me discussing life, devotion and peace. I could have given him a variation on Gandhi-ji’s answer. “I am a Jew. I also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Hindu.” But he just walked away.
One night, in Kabul, an Indian friend of Farshid’s needed a place to stay, so we set up a mattress, blanket and pillows on the floor of my room. He shared his little Indian treats with me, and described his faith. He was from Gujurati, in a town called Rajkot. Gandhi was a Gujurat, and Jainul Musani was a Muslim but lived largely as a Hindu (vegetarian meals were sent up to our room), belonged to a sect called Dawoodi Bohra and invited me to his town to visit the Vipassana meditation center, a tradition practiced by my San Francisco Bay Area (Marin County) Buddhist center Spirit Rock. You following me?
Mohammed, I am told is the Very Last Prophet, because, you know, in the last millennium of mass slaughter, cultural upheaval, scientific enlightenment, globalization, why would the Divine care to leak out any new material? But if I were an apostate, easier now that I am out of Afghanistan, and could add a prophet to the approved constellation (the Koran claims 120,000), then I would add Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. While British troops were murdering and repressing Indians, Gandhi goes right to the belly of the beast, to London’s Kingsley Hall in 1931, and lays this on the world:
“There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything, I feel it though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses. But it is possible to reason out the existence of God to a limited extent. Even in ordinary affairs we know that people do not know who rules or why and how He rules and yet they know that there is a power that certainly rules.
“In my tour last year in Mysore I met many poor villagers and I found upon inquiry that they did not know who ruled Mysore. They simply said some God ruled it. If the knowledge of these poor people was so limited about their ruler I who am infinitely lesser in respect to God than they to their ruler need not be surprised if I do not realize the presence of God – the King of Kings.
“Nevertheless, I do feel, as the poor villagers felt about Mysore, that there is orderliness in the universe, there is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives. It is not a blind law, for no blind law can govern the conduct of living being and thanks to the marvelous researches of Sir J. C. Bose it can now be proved that even matter is life. That law then which governs all life is God. Law and the law-giver are one. I may not deny the law or the law-giver because I know so little about it or Him.
“Just as my denial or ignorance of the existence of an earthly power will avail me nothing even so my denial of God and His law will not liberate me from its operation, whereas humble and mute acceptance of divine authority makes life’s journey easier even as the acceptance of earthly rule makes life under it easier. I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. That informing power of spirit is God, and since nothing else that I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is. And is this power benevolent or malevolent ? I see it as purely benevolent, for I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, truth, light. He is love. He is the supreme Good. But He is no God who merely satisfies the intellect, if He ever does. God to be God must rule the heart and transform it. He must express himself in every smallest act of His votary. This can only be done through a definite realization, more real than the five senses can ever produce.
“Sense perceptions can be and often are false and deceptive, however real they may appear to us. Where there is realization outside the senses it is infallible. It is proved not by extraneous evidence but in the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within. Such testimony is to be found in the experiences of an unbroken line of prophets and sages in all countries and climes. To reject this evidence is to deny oneself. This realization is preceded by an immovable faith. He who would in his own person test the fact of God’s presence can do so by a living faith and since faith itself cannot be proved by extraneous evidence the safest course is to believe in the moral government of the world and therefore in the supremacy of the moral law, the law of truth and love. Exercise of faith will be the safest where there is a clear determination summarily to reject all that is contrary to truth and love. I confess that I have no argument to convince through reason. Faith transcends reason. All that I can advise is not to attempt the impossible.”
The security guy at Kabul Airport glared at me and walked away. I looked after him. I had to catch my flight. As he returned to his security station, he turned to me in disgust and yelled, “Go! Go!” You take your small victories where you can.