When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

OP-ED

When Cultural Appropriation Goes Wrong

Xiaoxiao Du

February 2019

Five girls surrounded me while I was getting my henna tattoo done in a chaotic square of a Moroccan town. Their eyes followed the curvy lines drawn on my hand with a special herb product that dyed the skin. After she finished the last petal, the old henna artist admired her work for a second, decided that any addition to it would be redundant, and let go of my hand. I paid and stepped aside to make room for the next customer, but the other girls exchanged looks amongst themselves, and none of them sat down.

I was confused by their paradoxical admiration for the henna and their reluctance to get one, until later that night, my roommate, one of the five girls, revealed the magic words that kept them from getting a henna tattoo: cultural appropriation. Offending the locals was a lesser concern, because the henna artist was sitting in the middle of a square filled with tourists, and the locals passing by did not pay any attention to the henna stall, not to mention appear offended. It seemed that it was the mutual censorship, the fear that other students might accuse them of cultural appropriation, that kept them from getting a henna tattoo. In the end, you can never be too careful when dealing with potential cultural appropriation. 

Later in the Morocco trip, we had a chance to talk to local university students. We asked them whether they thought that it constituted cultural appropriation if someone outside their culture got a henna tattoo and then posted pictures of their henna on Instagram. The Moroccan students first asked what cultural appropriation was. They were amused by our concern about the appropriateness of getting a henna tattoo and replied that, no, they do not feel offended at all. They added that they felt flattered when people appreciated and spread their culture, so long as they were not poking fun at it. 

Moroccan Coast

Photo: Xiaoxiao Du

The Moroccan trip made me realize that cultural appropriation is a complex concept. I thought I was acquainted with the term “cultural appropriation” and its implications, but I failed to make the connection between getting a beautiful henna tattoo in Morocco and being guilty of cultural appropriation like other girls. I thought the criteria were simple: first, I have no intention of claiming henna tattooing to be part of my culture; second, my action did not offend anyone; and, third, it is just what tourists do. I would even go as far as calling my action “cultural appreciation.”

Yet talking about cultural appropriation is about calling into attention what people, tourists included, just do without questioning. The discussion about cultural appropriation is inseparable from other social and cultural discourses such as colonialism, orientalism, and the history of slavery. Talking about cultural appropriation sensitizes people so that they are more aware of the harm they could cause for the less privileged cultures and peoples.

The Oxford English Dictionary incorporated the term “cultural appropriation” in 2017 in response to the heated discussion about it in the western world, defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” Despite the appearance of clarity, the definition is problematic. The key terms are vague: what kind of adoption is inappropriate? How much acknowledgement is needed? For instance, a headdress which appeared in Victoria’s Secret’s 2017 show resembled a traditional war bonnet of the Native American culture. It is considered blasphemous for an outsider to wear it, and the headdress enraged the Native Americans. The leading opinions of the fashion world all agreed that the war bonnet constituted “cultural appropriation. It is unproductive to ban all assimilation of other cultures, but if we replace the war bonnet with less scared or mundane items, when does it cease to be cultural appropriation and become acceptable?

The conceptual confusion is not only a concern for scholars studying postcolonialism. When the line is hard to draw, and when people throw the term everywhere, an objective judgment is sometimes nowhere to be found. Worse, the resultant dispute can cause miscommunication and hatred. 

For instance, Jeremy Lin, a Chinese American basketball player, is known for his frequent change of hairstyle. When he posted on Instagram a picture of himself wearing his new choice of hairstyle, dreadlocks, he explained that he saw his hair as a tribute to the black culture. None of Lin’s teammates protested against his new hair, yet Kenyon Martin, a black basketball player from another team, bashed Lin’s African hairstyle, interpreting his action as a sign of wanting to become black, and labeling his hair “cultural appropriation.” People got so excited and ready to attack the person labeled as if they were a gam of sharks that smelled blood. Although some from the black community expressed their support or remained neutral, others followed Martin and left vicious comments under Lin’s Instagram. The dispute came to an ironic end when Lin responded to Martin, “At the end of the day I appreciate that I have dreads and you have Chinese tattoos. I think it’s a sign of respect.” The term, coined to call for respect, has turned cultural exchange into name-calling. Its abuse pits people against people, minorities against minorities.

The dialogue about cultural appropriation does not happen in every country and every culture, but the need for respect is universal. It is for the purpose of fighting discrimination and trivialization of the less privileged cultures that we initiate the conversation about cultural appropriation. But maybe “cultural appropriation” has gone too far that its practice defeats the purpose of promoting genuine respect and appreciation. Those who lack respect weaponize the term, whereas those with great respect for other cultures, due to the fear of being accused of “cultural appropriation,” lose the chance to take advantage of their cultural exchange experiences.

Talking about “cultural appropriation” cannot guarantee mutual respect. As someone who got a henna tattoo in Morocco and who might have been guilty several times of “cultural appropriation” according to stricter versions of its definition, I am not sure to what end the discourse is leading.

Xiaoxiao Du is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her name means “small small.” She is a philosophy major with special interests in metaethics. She can re-read novels by Cao Xueqin and Gabriel García Márquez any number of times without getting bored.

FURTHER READING

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LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor
in There Somewhere

MAY 2016

Dear Friend,

It should come as no surprise that I really, really, really like books. As soon as you saw this letter from me, you probably thought “I bet this is going to be about books”. Good guess.

We returned to the Platonic idea of each man having a specific nature in my Ethics class today, and I think my specific nature is more of the bleached-paper-and-PVA-glue type. I like books. I’ve bought too many books since coming to London, an undisclosed amount which should keep me up at night thinking of all the sterling pounds I’ve spent, but really doesn’t. Because I have the miracle/curse of having one class a day, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the city on my own. What I’ve discovered thus far is that the specific nature of London , or at least of my London, resides in its bookshops. I’ve probably been to every bookshop within a 30-minute walk from my flat in Russell Square. I’ve been to Skoobs—two minutes away and therefore a very tempting distraction when I can’t be bothered to write an essay—many times. The last time I was there I walked out with three books: one on Miles Davis, one on Jay-Z, and one about music in the twentieth century. All for 15 pounds (78.80 AED). Isn’t that insane?

Photograph by Gaby Flores

I can find my way to these bookstores well enough that if I were to be reincarnated into a pigeon I’d probably find myself flying to these same places every day. The funny thing is, though, that stepping inside them is different. See, the thing is that these bookstores are huge—or yuuuuuuuuuuuuge, as the next Republican nominee for President of the United States likes to say. Two floors seems to be the minimum, even in secondhand shops, with some shops having shelves that literally touch the ceiling. How the hell am I supposed to reach up there? These bookshops seem bereft of ladders, which makes me think that the sellers are saving all the best books for themselves at the top. I mean, there’s also the fact that the average height of a British citizen is a good 10 cm taller than my current height, which isn’t too bad but maybe 10 cm makes all the difference. You know how hopeless I am at estimating things, so it’s not like I would know. Part of the reason why I keep coming back to certain bookstores is to think of new ways to reach these hidden books. I’m not even sure if I want them, but just the simple fact of them being out of my reach makes me want them more. I mean, I could be missing out on the book that defines my life. My whole life! I suppose I could ask for help from these aforementioned 10 cm taller individuals, but I’d rather be left to my own bearings. My pilgrimages are very personal events, you know.

These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people.

But in all honesty, I get lost every time I go in. Doesn’t matter where it is—Skoobs in the Brunswick, Foyles on Tottenham Court Road,Waterstones on Picadilly/Tottenham Road/Gower Street, London Review Bookshopon Bury Place, Libreria Bookshop in Brick Lane—I know how to get there, but I get lost the second I step inside. I don’t even know what I do, or how I decide what books to pick up … does anyone? I don’t know. I kind of just walk around, maybe sit down and have some coffee (a lot of these bookshops have cafes in them, which reeks of capitalism but I’m too deep in it to care). Sometimes I get a flat white, but sometimes I get a latte because it’s often 10 pence cheaper, which doesn’t seem like a lot but really does once you’re a budgeting college student like I am. Sure, I could take the tube to Chinatown instead of walking for 20 minutes, or I could use the 2 pounds and 40 pence to buy a Pelican book on the origins of plastic. I mean, it’s not even a contest.

My London bookshops have become part of my routine and I go to a different one each day. So that means that each day, you can find me pacing up and down the aisles, picking stuff up and putting them down again, and being a quiet nuisance who doesn’t even spend any money but will sometimes cave in and buy 5 new books in one go. Throw me into the city again, however, and that’s different. I don’t even need Google Maps at this point, I’m so well-acquainted with the area (area being an ambiguous term, by which I mean whichever Bookshop Area I am currently in) that I’ll even take the side streets home just for kicks. Isn’t it funny? These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people. I guess that’s kind of ironic, considering that as I was leaving class I overheard these two girls finding directions for this, like, really good Korean place? that costs around 6 pounds? and is, like, really popular? and also super near?

FYI, the Korean joint she’s talking about is two minutes away from campus. Honey, you’ve been here for a little over a month. Get it together. I’ve eaten there at least four times in the past two weeks. It’s also a straight walk to the London Review Bookshop and the adjacent London Review Cake Shop, also known as the place where all time recedes into a vacuum.

But see, that’s what I’m talking about. I saw a play yesterday near Trafalgar Square and decided to walk back home instead of taking the tube, because it’s only a twenty-minute walk from Trafalgar to Russell Square. But in a bookshop, in my London bookshops, I get lost all the time. Not to say that getting lost is a bad thing, of course. When you walk around in a new city, getting lost is half the fun of it. Getting lost in a bookshop, however, is marginally better, in part because books can’t physically speak and are therefore quieter than the hordes of tourists in Piccadilly. Also, books don’t push you around when you’re trying to cross the street at a busy intersection.

I just came back from one, actually. I saw Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Instituteagain, this time on the tippitytoppiest shelf, making out with the ceiling, out of my reach. Most importantly, out of my credit card’s reach. Just as well, I suppose, because I’m still making my way through the other book I bought a couple of days ago. I tell myself I’ll be back eventually…maybe tomorrow. Okay, definitely tomorrow. And, as I stood there staring at The Time Regulation Institute—should’ve I took those growth pills as a kid — I thought of all my London experiences, which made me think of you, which made me write this letter. I hope you’re well.

Surprisingly enough (or not), I’ve still got a list of books I want to buy. Tanpinar’s is one, along with Han Kang’s Human Acts and Dickens’ Bleak House. I will only allow myself to buy one, though, so I’m giving myself a month to decide. I know I could go to a secondhand bookshop and save myself some cash while I’m at it, but I only go to the secondhand bookshops if I don’t have anything in mind in the first place, because most their charm comes from the search (case in point: Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera for 3 pounds, aka 10 AED – are you f***ing kidding me?). See, I already have a system devised for myself. It’s that bad. Furthermore, it seems counterintuitive to keep going back to bookshops while simultaneously banning yourself from buying anything, as if Alcoholics Anonymous were to have their weekly meetings in a wine cellar. I know that I could avoid going into a bookshop. I know how to avoid them, and I guess there are other things in this city worth exploring, but I can only go to the British Museum so many times before the stench of colonialism and oppression sears my scarf; at least in a bookshop, I can just forego any Kipling novel. Keep in mind that this city is expensive. Really, really, really expensive. You can go into a bookstore for free—and leave for free too, if you can manage to avoid buying anything. I can only visit a bookshop so many times though, before I end up convincing myself that yes I do need the biography on Basquiat, especially since I’ve glanced over it in the last five bookstores I’ve been to.

London has a reputation for being a literary city, but it isn’t really that evident when you first get there. I mean, I guess you can’t really expect people to be wearing “I LUV JANE AU$TEN” sweatshirts or whatever, but I like to imagine that Londoners know they’re walking around in a literary powerhouse. I suppose in reality, though, most people don’t care that much. That’s why I was delighted to overhear a conversation between two booksellers about who should have won the Man Booker prize last year. I’m still making my way through A Brief History of Seven Killingsmyself, so I refrained from jumping into the conversation. However, as I’ve just finished it, I think it’s high time that I go pay them a visit and give them a piece of my mind (that being that Marlon James did, in fact, deserve to win the prize). Then again, I haven’t read most of the other novels that were shortlisted, so I can’t make a sound judgment as of yet. Maybe they’ll have a copy or two of Francis Plug laying around.

I’m hopeless.

FURTHER READING
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)

ON LOCATION

Shakespeare at the Olympics

Snapshots from Berlin I

Snapshots from Berlin I

Photo by Shenuka Corea

“LOVE GROWS HERE”: THE FLÂNEUR IN PRENZLAUER BERG

Four inches of snow covered everything, like a layer of sugar dusting. It was wonderful, light and frothy, not wet, unpleasant and uncomfortable, like everyone said it’d be. At least it wasn’t yet. The street was still, and impossibly silent with just a hint of movement at the peripheries of my vision: a car door closing, a cyclist in the distance, a dog barking; the only consistent movement was the still gently falling snow. Certainly not a hint of the masses the city has been a home to for centuries. It was hard to imagine that the busy metro was just a short walk away.

This part of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, didn’t feel like a city. Here, you can stand on the center of the street without having to worry about traffic, though the traffic lights, irritatingly, work exactly as they did in other parts of the city. The buildings seemed old and alike, painted with the same color palette, running from ochre to cream and branching out into other pastels, the same sort of wrought iron balconies, long, regular rows of windows, and ornate doors.

In another part of Prenzlauer Berg, life passed by in droves; the streets sometimes busy and sometimes almost empty. Scooters, bikes, sleds and other modest forms of transport prevailed. Groups of children passed by, wrapped up like burritos in brightly colored parkas. One straggled behind the rest of her large family, diligently transporting an armload of snow that was beginning to crumble, leaving a trail of broken off chunks behind her. Adults strolled by with quicker steps and soberer wardrobes. Dogs were abundant, all pure-bred, well groomed, and on long leashes, creating the occasional stain on the otherwise pristine snow. Breath was visible, eddying in the air.

Shenuka I Photo 2

Berlin is a city of eccentrics and artists. Prenzlauer Berg had its share of both. Indeed, I later found out it was known as one of the city’s Bohemian Quarters. There was, for instance, a balcony encrusted with eerie garden gnomes and other kitsch porcelain figures, all ensconced in a bed of ivy. There was also a bare tree, labeled ‘Love Grows Here’ in English, adorned with wind chimes, many of those strips of colored plastic that spiral in the wind, and strings of seashells, a dreamlike sight when surrounded by snow. The graffiti, of course, was everywhere, neon and pastel, splattered across ornate antique doorways, the seal of the present marked on evocations of the past.

Birds clustered around a bush, piercing the silence with their high-pitched babble. As I came closer to investigate I realized that the bush was hung with bird feeders. Sensing my approach they rose in a flurry of wings to the higher window sills of a building. I felt somewhat guilty for disturbing their meal.

Shenuka I Photo 3Berlin the metropolis, was evident in Prenzlauer Berg, in its many cafes and restaurants catering to many different international tastes; from the ever-popular hummus and shawarma of the Middle East to Mexican, Vietnamese and, of course, German cuisine. The interiors of the small restaurants, where people could unwrap a few layers of insulation, were cozy and warm. The smell of and consumption of food enhances this feeling, making going back outside a harsh surprise, as it seems colder than it did before. The idea of a long sip of a mug of steaming coffee, held between cold fingers, seems enticing. Watched through a café window, the snow could be enjoyed without its unwelcome chill.

I was sad to leave, though the darkness was beginning to fall, prematurely from my perspective, and my cold fingertips and tired feet screamed at me that it was time to go. As I was being shaken around by the movement of the train I wondered when and if I would see snow that beautiful again and how long it would be before the day’s snowfall became filthy and unpleasant, as it inevitably would.

(Photos by Shenuka Corea)

January Term Sketches from New York

January Term Sketches from New York

ON LOCATION

January Term Sketches from
New York

April 2016

 

One day, I would like to call myself an artist. Here are some of my sketches from my January term, which I spent in New York this year.

It was a great experience, because New York has that strange, neo-romantic spirit of a post-modern megalopolis, which gets mixed with the still-alive spirit of twentieth-century USA, echoing jazz, hipsters, beatniks, hippies and a gazillion of other great and poetic (in its inner nature) things. This place represents the idea of diversity, though New York’s cosmopolitanism is different from the diversity I was exposed to back home (Russia).

I enjoyed every second I spent in this busy, technologically upgraded, story-filled city. This January marked my first time visiting the United States. I had some expectations of New York before going there, formed by pieces of popular media. Among them were: Carrie Bradshaw’s Manhattan, Friends’ New York, MoMA, Metropolitan, and Broadway. I tried to sketch everywhere, even while walking on the streets. Because I did not have a camera and this was my way to create nice memories.

We got kicked out of Grey Dog Coffee at rush hour; we hung out in Vapiano, with its fabulous interior and surprisingly affordable prices; we visited Rockefeller Center; I sketched magical creatures inspired by rats in the subway; beautiful strangers, my classmates, places of interest, reflections, dialogues, yellow cabs, dogs, the gorgeous Strand Bookstore (where we spent a fortune) – everything is  on the pages of my New York’s sketchbook.

Here is my first set of New York sketches. It features Rockefeller Center, where we saw the huge Christmas Tree and listened to the soundtrack from Home Alone, as well as some people I sketched in the subway and three versions of my roommate Helina.

All graphics by Anastasiia Zubareva.

Here are my classmates, a cartoon we watched while waiting to go to a museum, and my humbling-real-student-saving-money-for-Broadway-and-museums lunch (plain yoghurt and 150g veggies) grabbed from the grocery shop near by, recommended by our professor, Eliot Borenstein.

More subway sketches and the colorful portrait of smiling Ankita. That day we visited MoMA and I was melting from happiness, inspired and excited.

Midnight “breakfast” at IHOP with Ifadha and Ankita. I had my “Never Empty Coffee Pot.”

18 miles of books – Strand Books. The best place to go after Broadway and the museums. The $1 books were awesome! I struggled a lot at the end of J-term, though, because I had at least 7 kg of them.

I am in love with with this place. Want to live there… The Metropolitan Museum of Art! Modigliani’sWoman’s Head and one of the halls of the museum with the garden of sculptures.

Grand Central Terminal’s hall: Ifadha and I witnessed the sweetest moment of proposal there.

Here we are killing time before a performance of “Wicked” on Broadway that evening.

Grey Dog Coffee was a super cool and cosy, but since it was a rush hour they “politely” kicked us out. As the comment describes the waitress: “She was sad [to kick us out] but also impatient.”

Vapiano is an Italian restaurant with awesome food and interior design. Surprisingly, it was reasonably priced even for college students. New York dogs are super cute, as are cats. Their owners were pretty friendly. The weird creature in the right lower corner was inspired by huge and funny New York rats (especially those in the subway). And, yes, hold your bag tight unless you want to donate it to the stranger.

Anastasiia Zubareva is a member of the NYUAD Class of 2019.

Nobel Prize Announcement

Nobel Prize Announcement

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I arrived where I wanted to be: Gamla Stan, a fairytale condensed into a tiny island marking the center of Stockholm. Cobbled streets and alluring alleyways dating back to the thirteenth century host a multitude of museums and trinket shops that, when I arrived, had not yet opened to another day of tending the last waves of summertime tourists. I was almost a week into my holiday, and I was tired, brought low by the clouds that threatened to break down at a moment’s notice. I had resolved to walk along the musky October streets of Stockholm’s Old Town without any plan in mind. The looping alleys guided me past the castle, churches, and the cathedral; Gamla Stan introduced itself to me as I meandered. Serendipity took the reins, and my meandering lead me straight to the plaza of the Nobel Museum.

I was surprised to see a crowd of people and a line of news vans loitering just outside the entrance of the museum.  Whatever event was drawing the crowd,  I was determined to find out.  I wiggled my way through the gathering of people, anticipating the extraordinary, only to find out they were a group of tourists waiting for the museum gates to open. There were  only a couple of minutes left, so I figured I would join the masses. I mean, as a good tourist, I would have to go to the Nobel Museum at some point during my time in Stockholm, so I figured I might as well seize the moment.

At this point of my holiday, I had gotten into the naughty habit of blending into student tour groups, mainly because I was too cheap to purchase a tour for myself.  And my time at the Nobel Museum was no exception – as soon as I paid my entrance fee, I squirreled my way into a school tour of the museum. The main exhibition explored the ways in which the Nobel Prize developed over time and what this development showed about the future of the prize and its recipients. The tour guide at the Nobel Museum was talking about the process of the awards and how the winners are nominated and ultimately selected. Suddenly, he paused, smiled, and casually mentioned that at one o’clock that day, the Swedish Academy, housed just upstairs from the museum, would be announcing the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. I was caught by surprise, and the weight of the tour guide’s statement didn’t pull on my mind until I reasoned through the unbelievable reality of the situation and noticed that in under an hour, I could be present at the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I2014-11-es-lear-02 wasn’t sure what the optimum viewing quarters would be. I couldn’t figure out where precisely the announcement would be given as there were various concentrations of people across the area of the museum, all eager for the news. Ultimately I settled on the Nobel Café, where I could watch the announcement without imposing myself where I should not be. I ordered some lunch, happy to watch the announcement on a screen at the Café. Luck works magic sometimes, and instead of the event unfolding on a video screen, the actual announcement took place just a few metres from where I was sitting.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Patrick Modiano, a French writer from Paris “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. Modiano is relatively well known in France, yet his work had not circulated outside his home country before the announcement of the prize. I have yet to read his novels, and actually don’t know anyone who has recognized Modiano’s name outside the Nobel Prize context. Modiano’s work, however, is appealing to me because his books are short and accessible yet filled with thought-provoking plot lines that focus on reflections and memory. The announcer claimed that one could easily read one of Modiano’s novels in the morning, eat lunch and then read another in the evening. He particularly recommended Modiano’s Missing Person (Rue des Boutiques Obscures), a novel about an amnesiac detective searching for his own identity.

The Swedish Academy’s choice of Modiano was astonishing to most, as this is an author whose work hasn’t travelled far past its home borders. Modiano’s work – usually thought of as a body of work, rather than characterized by any piece in particular  – has hardly been translated into English and in reality has only been partially translated to Spanish, German and Swedish. In France, his work is usually in best-seller lists, and there even has been talk of a “phenomene Modiano.” I appreciate the Nobel Academy’s ability to look beyond popular works to find quality.

Though on drastically different scales, the announcement was a surprise for me as much as it was a surprise for Modiano and the wider public. Fittingly, perhaps we could say that Modiano’s win was guided by serendipity.

[Photo Credit: Dominique Lear]

Reflections on a Sri Lankan Adventure

Reflections on a Sri Lankan Adventure

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Finally! The torch works again. The others seem to gain confidence despite the rain beating down on their faces and keep climbing ahead. Me? I’m falling behind. Like always. This is what you get while trying to climb a mountain during a storm. Who thought this was a good idea again? Watch out! The steps are going down now. Good. This should not be too difficult, but careful there, you might slide …

… and I’ve twisted my ankle. Fantastic.

Now that I take the time to think about things more clearly as I sit here in agony … did I really want to climb? I want the pictures, sure, but I can do without the torture. Well, all the others will get there eventually and take pictures for me. At least now I won’t be the one keeping people back.

But why should that matter? You know what?! I can walk it off. Wipe off those tears! — I’m good, I’m good. Yes, I know it’s basically 6 hours up and down stairs. No, I am not going back to the hotel. I’m already 30 minutes away, soaking wet and wide awake at 2:30 in the morning. I might as well just keep going. It’s cold enough to keep my ankle cool. Yes, I know I will regret it in the morning. At this point, I don’t really care. Who knows? Maybe it will stop raining, and the climb to this temple will turn into something other than torture.

One of the most remarkable things I experienced in my short visit to Sri Lanka — well, at least remarkable for me, coming from the dominantly Catholic Peru, and having moved to the predominantly Muslim UAE — is the apparent harmony in which so many major religions coexist. Although 70% of the population is Buddhist, there are also visible Hindu, Muslim, and Christian presences in the region. While there are particular regions dominated by each religion, it is not atypical to see in a single block a Hindu temple, a Buddhist Temple, a Mosque, and a Church, which have sat beside each other for decades or even hundreds of years. Outside, you will find vendors catering to the devotees with offerings for diverse rituals, and pilgrims greeting each other as they exit and enter different temples. Of course, this has not always been the case, as the civil war that ended in 2003 demonstrates. Harmony is an ongoing commitment, and people need to work, revise and edit, like in any great work.

As an international NYUAD student, I am not really surprised by this harmony. We are after all one of the most diverse and functional petri-dishes in the world. However, as an agnostic-raised individual, trying to discover my own faith and spirituality, the small occurrences that other people may see as normal or even quaint fill me with wonder, and hope. Back home in Lima, I never met anyone who wasn’t either Christian or, like me, trying to find sense in between agnosticism and atheism. There are no other alternatives. Yet throughout our visit in the “Shining Island” we visited countless temples, met pilgrims from diverse faiths and got acquainted with their different philosophies, and how their different communities compromise in order to keep the harmony amongst them.

Not only do these various religions exist peacefully alongside one another in Sri Lanka, but, incredibly, many of them share sites of devotion and inspiration. Sri Pada (“sacred footprint”), also known as Adam’s Peak, is one such site. According to Buddhists, the footprint-shaped indentation found at the top of this mountain corresponds to Buddha’s foot, left after he visited Sri Lanka. For Hindus, the footprint is from Lord Shiva, and the mountain itself stands in representation of Ravana’s lair from the Ramayana stories. For Muslims and Christians, the footstep is of Adam, left behind when he was evicted from Eden. All of this spirituality is guarded inside a small Buddhist monastery, erected to protect this sacred footprint. Thousands of pilgrims climb to the top of the conical mountain every year, from where, supposedly, on a clear day you can see not only the most spectacular sunrise, but also cities hours away.

Sadly, I wouldn’t really know from experience. Because of the Eid holiday timing, our trip took place off-season. Specifically, during monsoon season. During regular pilgrimage months, December to May, the pathway up the mountain, with over 6000 stone steps, is supposedly lit with colorful lanterns to enable pilgrims to climb the mountain to admire dawn. There are also regular stops where climbers can rest and have refreshments. For us off-season tourists on the other hand, 2:30am had us out in our raincoats leaving the warmth of our hotel for the dark jungle, stepping into a storm that had lasted for hours, and would last for several more. In the light of the lanterns maybe I would not have minded the climb. I might have even grown to enjoy the burn in my legs as I climbed up those endless stairs that stretched into the heavens. It would have been quite a pleasant adventure. Instead, it was more of a terrifying blind scramble up and down a weathered staircase that seemed to resemble a potentially fatal waterfall more often than not. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it.

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But an unforgettable experience? That it was. And, without meaning it to be, quite a spiritual one at that. Of course, on my way up, wet and heavy as a drenched alley cat and desperately holding an old torch possessed by dark sense of humor, my experience was far from spiritual. Well, in any aspect other than comparing myself to Dante coming up Purgatory Mountain that is. Throughout the climb my only positive thoughts were about the fact that I was not particularly thirsty in the rain.

Finally getting to the top and finding the temple closed for another hour until dawn was also not fun, particularly when we realized we were not going to have a very spectacular sunrise, since the storm was still raging on in all its glory. By that point in my journey the weather started to get less chilly, meaning my ankle was beginning to realize it had been tricked. Having lost the cover of the jungle, unprotected now from the storm and the winds (not exactly the deep connection with nature I was expecting) I might have looked up at the sky and thought, “Well that was almost worth it. Although I imagine this would be a really cool place in different weather. Pity I’m not staying to find out.” To my regret, the consensus of the group at the time was that the storm made everything not quite worth the wait. Breakfast, baths and beds just sounded so much more appealing. So no, I did not stay to see the gates open, and no, I did not get to see the sacred footprint. I guess I’ll have to go back (this time under better conditions and hopefully wearing appropriate hiking trousers), and say hi to Buddha, Shiva and Adam another time.

Surfing my way back down waterfall stairs while simultaneously cursing and praying to several deities probably did not get me many spiritual points or clean my karma account. However, once the rain stopped mid-way on my climb down, so did my curses.

It is amazing how being able to finally see your own tumbling feet and to know, rather than guess, where you need to put them can have a calming effect on one. My eternal gratitude to that ancient, faulty torch which waited until I could actually see the steps to give up. Once the fear and the adrenaline were gone, I could begin to think about the last five blurry hours. I, with the physical resistance of someone who doesn’t feel very guilty about not going to the gym had climbed that mountain. In the dark. During a storm. On a twisted ankle, which by now resembled a very nicely colored round plum. I had done it by myself, since I walked alone through most of it, but most importantly, I had done it for myself. Not to prove to my friends that I could do it, but to prove to myself that I could. I mean, what kind of excuses can I make now? If you could climb that, you have no excuses left for not doing anything else. When you are searching for spirituality, faith begins by believing in yourself.

As I admired the now visible valley, limping my way down the mountain through endless fields of tea leaves and mesmerizing waterfalls that had before been masked by the storm, I had a curious feeling that others might call “inner peace.” Yes, I was in acute pain, yes, I was soaked to the bone, and yes, I had entered into most inappropriate relationship with some leeches in my trousers (that is a story for next time). But I was at peace with myself and my efforts. Since I had the time and the freedom, I had a very nice chat with parts of me normally dormant, the kind that makes you question your entire existence and such. We agreed that I would talk to them more often and try to address their complaints, and in return they would stop keeping me awake at night, specifically before exams and important presentations. After months and months of struggle, I had won. And, it felt good.

Reaching the bottom of the mountain was not very difficult after that. I mean, I only got lost twice and had to ask 4 different people for directions trying to get to the hotel. All was good. What was stopping me from going back to Abu Dhabi and facing the mountain of pending work on my desk? Apart from the fact that I wouldn’t be able to walk properly for the next week … absolutely nothing.

[Photo Credits: Top: Sri Pada by Harshini Karunaratne; Bottom: 6000 Steps by Paloma Saco-Vértiz.]

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