by Humera Afridi
“Mommy it's Christmas, you have to put away your work!” urged my nine-year old. And so I began clearing the dining table which had turned into an expansive workspace over the early winter weeks. As I gathered up my books, a sheet of paper slid out from a binder. I stared at it absently. A photocopy of an archival newspaper cutting from 1923, with publication title missing. The headline announced: “Indian Mystic Here to Show America Path of Tolerance and Brotherhood.”
I marveled at the headline. Kinship and the “Path of Tolerance”—what better salve for our fraught present? I sensed a confluence of eras and histories, of time collapsing. A ‘Father Christmas' message, if ever there was one, I mused, sitting back down at the table to study the article from 1923. And, indeed, as if conspiring to corroborate my thesis, a striking Christ-like image of Hazrat Inayat Khan floated off the page—commanding features and a magnetic expression; tapering beard; mystical gaze piercing the distance. A strand of beads with a heart-and-wings pendant adorned his neck. The article's sub-headings revealed the contours of the story— “Inaya (sic) Khan, Hindu Poet and Philosopher, Bars Politics from Consideration”; “Humanitarianism is His Study”; “Says Greatest Need of America and of Whole World is Understanding”— a gift-giving message to be sure, emanating a spirt apropos of Christmas; an antidote to the climate of war and divisiveness in which we find ourselves.
I squinted my eyes to decipher the tiny newsprint, faded in parts, and stopped dead after the first half of the sentence. “Inaya Khan, Hindu poet, philosopher and mystic, has entered America after a few days detention at Ellis Island…” A few days detention? I started over and reread the sentence. Yes, a few days' detention at Ellis Island. I'd read it correctly. More alarming than the shock of this initial piece of information is that the article carries on without the slightest reflection on the egregious incident and, undoubtedly, racist attitude that Hazrat Inayat Khan had endured at the hands of immigration at Ellis Island.
The opening sentence in its entirety proceeds thus: “Inaya Khan, Hindu poet, philosopher and mystic has entered America after a few days detention at Ellis Island, to tell Americans how the path towards world tolerance and brotherhood is open and waiting for them to lead the way. A leader is all that is needed to take the path, he says, and America, by reason of present conditions, has been designated as that leader.”
What is not articulated in the article says as much, if not more, than what is contained in it. This record of an Indian Sufi mystic's visit to America from Europe in 1923 speaks volumes, not just about that moment in history but about the present and the historic past. I am one who believes in signs. And this sheet of paper had chosen to make itself known by slipping out of the folder at a propitious time— literally a day after the hateful and prejudiced National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) targeting Muslims— a strategy initiated by Bush as part of the war on terror—had been dissolved. The dismantling of NSEERS is a long overdue and welcome development, but it doesn't do away with the reality that we have a President-elect whose election campaign emboldened overt displays of hate-mongering and has inspired racist and anti-Semitic attacks. A leading element in his bid for the White House was a plan to prevent non-US citizen Muslims from entering the US, or if allowed in, to place them under surveillance.
Reading this article, what struck me is that not a whole lot has changed in America in all these decades. In the sweep of time covered between this news report of 1923 and the America of 2016 and, more dramatically, between the news report and the arrival centuries ago of the first white colonizers on this land belonging to the indigenous tribes of North American, there is a consistent theme. Betrayal and a stripping away of rights and dignity and culture appear to be a hazing rite of passage in white America. (And as a corollary, the stoic reinvention and rehabilitation of the self, the self-mastery needed to overcome the abysmal conditions arising from the inequities and harshness—coming out the other end of this initiatic fire, one might then earn the right to belong in America.)
The news article proceeds with a distorted logic that posits as normal the fact that on the one hand a great Eastern mystic visitor (sought out by Orientalists) is here to share his wisdom, while on the other it is quite acceptable to have him placed in detention as a first step towards entry into the country.
“Inaya (sic) Khan, with his serene brown eyes and his calm restful voice, thinks and speaks in terms of humanity,” begins the second paragraph. “There is no bitterness about this man from India,” the article continues. “There is no disappointment in his eyes as he talks of humanity and its needs.” And a few paragraphs later: “This mystic from far off India walks about New York, makes his way through our hurried traffic and sees the rush and turmoil of our American life… He is a figure that more than one in the passing crowd will stop to gaze after, not alone because of his unusual costume, but partly because of his serene look of contentment and happiness that shines from his eyes.”
How can one fail to notice— especially given that it's December and Christmas—the Christ-like stoicism of Inayat Khan, his serenity, his message of empathy and reconciliation? Inayat Khan's peaceful demeanor in 1923 belies the ‘welcome' he received. The unconscionable lack of acknowledgement of what this venerable teacher experienced on arrival in the very land that he says holds the potential for exemplary leadership is, to me, shocking. I grazed the internet for information and managed to locate a short New York Times article from February 18, 1923— “Admits Hindu Mystic” with the sub-head “Board of Inquiry announces Inaya (sic) Khan May Lecture Here.” It turns out that after his arrival, Inayat Khan had been placed in detention because “the quota of Hindus had been filled.” He was granted entry after a hearing before a special board of inquiry. “The Khan it was brought out had been in the United States in 1912 on a lecture tour. He also played the buena (sic) a native string instrument.” In truth, Inayat Khan had been invited to give a series of lectures by the League for the Higher Life, and yet, despite that he was detained and had to have a special hearing.
Hazrat Inayat Khan—a celebrated classical musician in India and the grandson of Maula Baksh, the chief court musician of the ruler of Gujrat and founder of the famous music school in India, the Gayanshala— first came to the West in 1910, on a music and lecture tour. His talks on the sacred principles underlying his music gained increasing popularity (in the years of the Great War, his audience found much comfort in his teachings), so much so that eventually his philosophical and spiritual teachings superseded his music. He was a Chishti Sufi, a disciple in the ancient spiritual lineage of Khwajah Moinuddin Chishti (114-1236), whose message of Love towards all, malice towards none formed the foundation of Inayat Khan's own teachings.
‘” I am not concerned with politics at all,”' Inayat Khan states in the 1923 article. ‘”I am interested in the humanitarian side of the world. If the general attitude develops humanity will think and act better and the effect will be seen in politics as well as in education, social relations and religion.”'
I wonder what Inayat Khan would say about today's America? The country that he perceived as having been designated a leader by the then “present conditions.”
My son strode over to the dining table in protest. “Mom, why are you still sitting down?” Catching sight of the article, he leaned over and stared intently at the saintly photo of the teacher.
On election night, he'd confided in a shaky voice, his face pale in the light of the streetlamps as we walked to a friend's house, that he was really scared that Trump would win. “Don't worry,” I said. “There's no chance of that. But if he did, what are you scared of?”
“Mom, he'll ruin my childhood. He's going to build a wall. And he'll deport you because you were born in Pakistan.”
“We live in America. And America would never allow that.” I said. That night I spoke from a place of confidence, convinced that Hillary would be our next president. I clasped his hands to reassure him.
I did not closely follow the shenanigans leading up to Election Day. I didn't need to. For months, the noise, bellowing and raucous, reverberated its crass tones everywhere. Filled with bombast, deception, and drama, the cacophony sawed into our dreams, into our very beings, unforgiving as razor-edged metal teeth. One could not get away from the spectacle even if one tried; its aura seemed to settle into the branches of trees lining the sidewalks.
The morning our world changed, my son took his guitar to school for a music share. He chose to play Metallica's “Master of Puppets” accompanied by a friend who sang the dark lyrics to a class of nine-year olds. Days later, he stayed up late writing a song. He titled it “My Apocalypse.” I asked him how things were at school recently. His class had been having intense community discussions pre- and post-election, moderated by the teachers. “Aaah, we're all quieter and sadder now,” he said, sounding like a wizened, old man.
The morning after the unthinkable happened, I walked the streets of New York like many denizens of the city in a fugue of depression. A heaving, sobbing grief entered me. Breathing was to feel trapped, as if in an earthquake, beneath slabs of the city's ancient bedrock. Strewn here and there on the sidewalks were mementos of the previous day, reminders of elation and hope, stickers announcing, “I Voted.” I felt betrayed. This was not my America. I felt betrayed as a woman, as a mother, as a Muslim, as a person of color, as a person who falls under the category of immigrant (though I never intentionally set out to live my life in this country).
A funny thing happens when you're broken open by sadness. A startling clarity settles in. In that bleeding rawness, you see the world through new eyes— stripped down to a primeval, fundamental, visceral way of seeing. So broken open that epistemologies change, and solace comes only in the ability to be open hearted, to share, to reach across, to hold a stranger's hand, to embrace. I found myself fleeing towards light-filled places; bodies of joy and anger and song, they were my oxygen. Where there was kinesis there was hope, where there was action with intention and mindfulness, there was hope.
“'The day humanity awakens to the need of brotherhood,” he said, “conditions will be better in all the affairs of the world. It matters not what religion man professes. This is not the time to advance any particular sect, church, or belief. We have too many sects. They are only the outer forms. The things that really matter are deeper.”'
Hope was his greatest strength. Hazrat Inayat Khan would be the last to bemoan and dwell on the incident of his detention at Ellis Island, reaching as he did for the higher spheres and for elevated thoughts. In our time of war and conflict, fear and pessimism—not dissimilar from his era— it feels right to remember Hazrat Inayat Khan and his message of spiritual liberty: an embracing universalism anchored in the spirit of unity.