Issue 110 / March - April 2016
The Odyssey to the Heart of the City of Angels
Sumayya B. Sharaf
I have a secret. I discovered why the full moon is so luminous in South California. I will tell you where the lights of the city come from. Can you keep a secret? Can you bear with me on a journey? If not, donâ€™t you dare!
I carry the winds of the Eastern Fables. They cover each and all. But I write from the City of Angels, where all ends and thus begins. It is not a surprise that I want to be a kind of Arabian fable teller, who touches everything and yearns to tell as much as I can. Bear with me, will you?
Life is a journey, not a destination, Emerson said. I will add that life teaches one to be on the road. Prayers keep one on the road. The pilgrimage is a place where you find more of your soul. It is a journey on this Earth that reminds us that there is a destination to reach: the last stop, where one becomes the ultimate and total human.
To be a human is a destination, and we are cloaked in human attire in the most auspicious ways. Yet the attire does not prove the residents of human bodies to be humans. Yes, life is a journey, and the last breath is exhaled when the destination of being a full human is achieved. Or maybe life begins only after we fill the outfit in which we are dressed. Then the true journey starts.
Today, I decided to pray. I learned that everything prays in this city: flowers, sun, water, my cells, and the cityâ€™s sounds. Their functioning is a prayer. They set off their journey anew each day. What about me? What about me?
The pilgrims in many religious traditions undertake a long journey to expiate their sins. The journey itself is a means to cleanse their minds from the sediments of everyday life. Daily prayers are here with us on the journey. As the sun rises, and gravity continues to fulfill its duty, I join the harmony, trying to be my best as a human. How can I be a better human today? What does â€śbeing a humanâ€ť mean for me today?
We are pilgrims every day. We travel from day to morrow, from good to the best, from the love of having to the love of sharing â€“ and even giving. Through each step we, the pilgrims, have taken, we break free from the intrinsic lure of the city, of the lights and their illuminations. A person who lives to reach out to the luminous horizons of being alive â€“ to the site of the pilgrimage â€“ will find their existence on Earth expanded, made larger. It will turn from dross to gold; from ephemeral to ebullient timelessness.
At a downtown coffee shop, I sat and began thinking about the prayers. Since I have to observe my daily prayers one after the other in a constrained time during these short winter days, I oscillate each time about whether to go or not to a coffee shop, to study. I did go this Saturday.
With me, I have the small rug I use as a prayer mat. I have all types of stories about my prayer rug. I have a personal connection with it since it reminds me of the extent of humanityâ€™s potential to occupy a space on the Earth. When we stand, we can claim a space as big as two feet. When we ensconce ourselves in a chair, or are outstretched on a piece of rug, we have only a space as big as our body. We cannot have more than that, even if we have it all. I do not. Yet I feel the whole city is mine, when I try to find a place to pray on the streets or in the parks. I familiarize myself with a certain tree, and talk to that tree, thinking that it will one day remember my prayer, and me. I tell the streets that I follow their paths; they offer me a verdant beauty, and I offer my prayers, just as they did. Their green is how they pray.
Los Angeles is a different city of prayer in each season. But whatever the season, I can pray outside. There is no snow, and very little rain. The cafĂ©s always have chairs outside, and I have my prayer rug under my arm. I do not need a building to pray. This also makes the city more of an open-air prayer hall to me. This green and blue city is constantly praying, and thus its prayers are reflected as an open-air museum, honoring the Names of God as well as the humans who want to recite the name of the God, following the cityâ€™s lead.
I used to say a house is not a home to me unless I clean each and every corner by myself. I have developed a new motto: a city is not mine unless I have been to its various coffee houses, and prayed in many streets and parks. In that sense, this city is not terra incognita to me anymore. It could not be: it is, as I said, an open-air prayer hall. In a city where everything and everyone is in constant prayer, I see all as a distant relative of mine. To have One in our lives, connects me to the all unknown faces and places. How do I know that everyone prays? Well, people are working hard in this city, and that makes the city a prayer hall, I say. People are doing their best to fulfill the requirements of their professions in this city. They may not know it, but that is also a prayer. There is literal prayer, through sacred texts and rituals. And then there is another type of prayer, through diligent labor and dedication.
So now, I should pray. I leave my belongings in the coffee house with my friend and walk to the adjacent street, to find a tree under which I can pray. One side is trees, and the other side is parked cars. I lay my prayer rug down and take off my shoes. I stand still to begin my prayer. If youâ€™ve ever seen a Muslim praying, you would better understand what I am doing.
The light in the city always reminds me of the sheer, unfading innocence, and thus incessant happiness, that one can catch a little glimpse of only during childhood imaginations. On the freshly cut grass, I cannot find myself at peace; yet, I have one more chance when I change my movements. Each prayer unit is a reminder to wake up from a dream in which I forget myself. I am trying to wake my inner self with each movement. First, I move my hands up and open my palms towards the point where I face all my attention during the prayer. The hope is to carry oneâ€™s attention to one focal point. I put my left hand on my heart and the right on my left hand. I can neither feel palpitations nor dedicated concentration.
It is good to pray on the streets. It is both distracting, and yet the sound of the passing cars, and even walking people, is a call to awake. I look to my prayer rug and hear the voices on the street. I wish to silence them, but cannot. They follow me until the end. I pray the prayer, but it cannot arrest the meaning inside.
I sit on my rug, open my palms towards the skies, and wish that I knew one of the soliloquy prayers by heart. In those lines the shards of broken souls are replaced with new excitement. Tilted heads and open hands open each and every part of the heart to new possibilities and hopes. All living beings are alive again, and they are all sentient. The dissident darkness of the heart declares the honor of being servile. The air fills your palms, and the moment you take your hands to your face, that sensuous new life fills your being, from your eyes to your toes. I understand why men begin the prayer by touching their ears: the ears are the nexus of where all begins and where all ends. Life and the prayer begin with a call to prayer, and life ends with the last call to prayer. I think of the call to prayer as an archaic sound, reminding us of the origins of any kind of language. Thus, the call to prayer talks to anyone, from any place or religion. And the ears carry and reveal that primordial duty.
How, I asked my scientist friends at the coffee shop, can you understand and explain this? Are the stones on the road, the grasshoppers at night, the wind that carries the leaves, and the leaves that submit to the windâ€¦ are all and each praying? Are they also pilgrims, joining this journey of prayer and seeking their Mecca?
There are patterns that make science feasible, my friend responded. Whatever fits within the pattern has life; whatever has no reason, follows another pattern that we call non-existence. We name the physically measurable scientific patterns.
But how about naming human feelings? Is sadness another pattern that we concoct? What about prayer? Is it gravity, or is it the concomitance of a series of physical facts that coincide at one moment and place, many times, again and again? It is easier to name it for the sake of scientific research, and not to repeat the detailed explanation, each and every time. Prayers are such a pattern. The apples falls down because the apple responds to what the earlier generations did. This is the tradition of nature. We are wired with feelings; this is also a pattern, a tradition. Prayers are the call of living beings to their very nature. Nature is in line with its own nature; however, how much are we humans in line with our nature? Prayer keeps us in line with our nature.
The one who prays every day will remember there is One who sees and hears, even though nobody else is around. The one who prays will remember that there is a Sustainer. They will know that humanity will be sustained as long as humans remember that there is a larger order and that there is One who organizes this beautiful, intricate, yet easy to unravel picture.
Yes, my dear friend. We wake to a new life every day. Each and every creation is on a journey. We all are seeking our destination: the pilgrimage sites in this world, and maybe in the hereafter. Maybe the ones who prepare each and every day anew will end up in the most beautiful pilgrimage site upon their departure from this worldâ€™s stop. We are travelers, after all.
There is a parable about two twins in their motherâ€™s womb. They are discussing whether there is a life after being inside their mother. One twin asserted that it will be a birth, and not a death, and this birth presages the beginning of the real life. That new life will be a new world, with new patterns.
The other twin said there is no life after this one. â€śWe will live and die within this turbid water, drinking this red blood as the only source of nourishment. We cannot adjust to a different food. There cannot be something better than this. Besides, there is no mother, because we do not see her. We will perish after all this ends.â€ť
There is certainly new life after that little, tiny place they called home. They were at a station on their journey.
I smiled as I told the story to my friend at the coffee shop. I took a sip from my coffee, and said, â€śWhat can be better than this latte and how can I possibly taste it?â€ť But there must be things better than these. I am sure there will be, because I want something more, something better. This feeling in itself foretells what is to come, or exist.
I come to the coffee houses to share stories like this with interesting people. Anyone can strike up a conversation with you in such a place, and many people have their own stories to tell. On their quest for enlightenment, the residents of Los Angeles illuminate the city with their hearts and pens. The lights of the city do not come from the Department of Power and Gas, but from a motley group of praying heartsâ€™ efforts. While the trees prostrate themselves and praise the beauty of the Creator of the Blue and Green in this golden state, the Divine Brush cleanses the city with extraordinary rains.
Today, my prayer is this story, put down on paper with a pen. I hope these words will testify to my few hours of examination, and that they will become an infinite seed, to blossom in many colors in a lot of cities. I write from Los Angeles for you, my friend. I send my cityâ€™s blessings and greetings. I would love to hear your journey, to your inner self, in your city. I hope we can set off on a pilgrimage together, from each city: from the good to the best, from the love of having to the love of sharing, and even giving. I repeat what the lights of the city that fell on my prayer rug told me: when all pray to One and the Same, then nowhere is terra incognita, and no journey is different.
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