It was almost one year ago that I landed in Istanbul and started the three-month journey through the Middle East. From Sept 12 to Dec 2, 2017, the pilgrimage led me through Turkey, Iran and Dubai (UAE). Thanks to the daily journal and photos, not all memories are lost :) Here are some belated reflections from that colorful and paradoxical part of the world.
Before arriving in Istanbul, I knew exactly three people in the entire Middle East -- two of whom I had never met. However, as I enter each country, there awaited a Dharma family to welcome the pilgrim home.
In Turkey, it was Aslinur and Marian who opened up their warm apartment in Üsküdar on the Asian side of the Bosporus channel that straddles Asia and Europe. Meeting the young Turkish-German couple for the first time almost took my breath away -- an instant recognition of old affinity and fondness. In addition to finding my long lost siblings, I could not have wished for a better pair of guides to lead me into the best of Middle East. Aslinur and Marian are both Rumi scholars, speak seven or eight languages between them (including Farsi and Ottoman Turkish), are deeply rooted in the Sufi lineage, and are passionate about Islamic/South Asian cultures. In them, I've got a one-stop-shop for everything between Anatolia and India :)
I was deeply moved by a story of Aslinur's father, H. H was a Sufi dervish, as well as a local policeman. Once, H was tasked with enforcing debt collection by confiscating the property of an indebted family. H saw the heartbroken sorrow of the poor family, and could not bear to take away their meager belongings. On that day, H happened to receive his monthly salary. So he gave all his salary to the family, so that they could remain solvent. That month, H had little money left for food, and ate simply, with a content heart.
Later on, even in India, I stayed with Aslinur and Marian for a week next to Sai Baba ashram in Puttaparthi, and for another week at the Environmental Sanitation Institute, part of the Gandhi Ashram.
In Iran, it was a reunion with fellow Dhamma sevak (server) AA. In late 2016, AA and I served together at Dhamma Giri near Mumbai for a 10-day Vipassana course. Back then, we had a grand time pouring thousands of cups of curd and tomato soup everyday in the kitchen, but I never expected that I would wind up staying for a week in AA's home in Tehran a year later. He welcomed me home like a brother, and we meditated together every day.
In Dubai, it was Sunita and her family who provided me a sacred haven in the materialist metropolis. As householders, they are living an almost monastic life, with daily practices, meditation, and community services -- karma yoga. I also had some of the best dal in this Tibetan home :)
To top it all off, one month later, Marian, Sunita and I got to sit the same 10-day Vipassana course at Dhamma Giri in India! Marian and I were sitting just two rolls apart in the meditation hall. And on the final day of the course, I saw brother AA (from Tehran) walking into the campus, ready to serve the next 10-day course. The karmic feedback loop is pretty tight!
Everyone loves Atatürk
Turkish people adore Atatürk as much as Americans love Mickey Mouse. The founding father's handsome portraits are as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola ads in the United States. The current president, Erdoğan, is only recently overcoming his humbleness to hang up more of his own pictures in public.
In fact, each of the three Middle Eastern countries I visited has their own favorite stern men's picture to hang up. In Iran, the duo is Khomeini and Khamenei, the Supreme Leaders. In Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Zayed.
Ghost of empire
The land that makes up modern-day Turkey has been one of the original and most important "melting pots" in human history. Here is where East meets West and where Christendom meets (or fights) Islam.
Almost all major civilizations have at some point come through the area that is modern day Turkey: Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Seljuk, Mongol, Ottoman…
Peeling through the layers of imperial rise and fall, I am reminded of the quip that "history is just one damn thing after another".
And the ghost of empire continues to haunt their descendants. It seems that, any nation, if it once had a taste of the imperial glory, could never forget its bloody intoxication, and would always dream of returning to their "rightful place" in history.
And the ghost of empire would hijack some wounded egos, and birth a dictator or two whose psychosis finds expression in political expansion and military aggression. Their personal karma would reverberate with the collective karma of their people, and sweep the whole nation into a destructive frenzy. Only world domination seems grandiose enough to compensate for their broken souls. A few of such are even presidents these days…
Middle Eastern hospitality
The Middle East is no doubt the most hospitable region among all the places I've traveled to, with perhaps Iran taking the crown of hospitality.
In most Western countries, on average, one in five families would say yes to my request of staying in their garden for the night. In the Middle East, it is almost one in one. In Iran, families would invite me into their homes even before I knock. Passing cars would give a few friendly honks or thumb-up. Many times, locals would stop me on the street and insist that I go to their home for lunch. They would roll out the typical plastic sheet, stretch it over the beautiful Persian carpet in the living room, and lay out a rich meal in front of the stranger.
Once, I stopped in a small village shop along the Persian Gulf to buy some water. A girl saw me from a afar and ran back into her house. Minutes later, his older brother came smilingly with a steaming plate of home-cooked food for me.
Another form of hospitality: Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the less stable parts of the Middle East. I met a few Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Istanbul. They are some of the finest characters. It is heartbreaking to hear their stories as stateless people.
Not the Iran we knew
Out of all the dozen countries I've visited, Iran is the one where the reality on the ground is the furthest from outside perception. Not only is Iran the most hospitable country, I feel much safer walking on the streets of Tehran at mid-night than in San Francisco.
So, it was ironic that, as soon as I entered Iran, my bank in San Francisco suspended my account simply because I was in Iran. I didn't even use their cards while in Iran, given Iran's financial system is cut off from the rest of the world due to US sanctions. Apparently, the bank was somehow tracking my location, and made sure that I understood that Big Brother was watching.
A friend in Tehran observed: "There are three layers of getting to know Iran. First, you have the media perspective from outside the country. Second, you see Iran from its public spaces and outward life, with political billboard and religious symbols filling the streets. Finally, you find a very different reality inside people's homes." Truly, when I visit Iranian homes, more often than not, the dinners consist of pizza, Coca-Cola, and wine :) There is supposed to be no alcohol in Iran, by the way.
The modern Iranian people are heir to one of the greatest ancient civilizations. A thousand years before the Arab invasion and conversion to Islam, Persia already held the then largest empire in the world, and had a sophisticated indigenous religion, Zoroastrianism. Today, Zoroastrianism in Iran is down to a few thousand followers, plus a few dimly-lit museums. Still, Islam in Iran retains a distinct Persian flavor, not the least through the timeless poetry and architecture. Iran is also unique among the Islamic world in following Shia Islam, the second largest branch that constitute less than 15% of all Muslims globally.
The socio-economic realities in Iran today is unbefitting for its rich heritage. Many well-educated young people could not find decent jobs. Very often, the taxi drivers in Tehran has a master degree in engineering. Of the Iranian young people who speaks some English, almost all of them are planning on immigrating to the West. Many young people, even married couples, still live with their parents due to high housing price. An average white collar worker earns around $500 a month, putting him in the middle class. Rent in Tehran is high, while traffic is as bad as any big Asian cities. The US economic sanction has been painfully felt by ordinary Iranians. The Iranian currency has depreciated 400% against the US dollar. And I probably should not write anything about the current regime, because some foreigners have been banned from entering Iran again after their blog posts :)
Yet Hafez gives me hope. On the streets of Tehran, young boys sell leaflets of Hafez poems, a favorite reference for fortune-telling. Most Iranians know a few Hafez poems by heart, and recites them at many occasions. At the tomb of Hafez in the ancient Shiraz, I saw bus loads after bus loads of school children coming to pay homage to the beloved Sufi poet. Young girls in first grade circled around the marble tomb with their teachers, and eagerly raise their hands to recite Hafez poems with passion. Listening to their melodic recitation moved me to tears. So long as the children are still happily reciting 14th Century mystic poetry in praise of the Divine, then all is not lost for the country. A nation that has given us Rumi and Hafez certainly have much more to offer to the world.
Vipassana in Iran
Vipassana meditation used to be quite popular in Iran until the government banned the practice. Senior Iranian Vipassana teachers were jailed or exiled. Still, the wholesome practice of self purification continue to attract Iranians, especially in cultured cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz.
I have stayed and meditated with half a dozen Vipassana families throughout Iran. Some of them found me by coincidence. Once, I was cycling on the desert highway. A car stopped, and the couple asked me if I were the cyclist from China. They somehow heard from "Dhamma underground" that there is a meditator cyclist in their region. They spoke no English, but I could understand the word "Vipassana", and their enthusiastic body language inviting me to stay with them. They gave me a card for their vegetarian restaurant, and drove off. A few days later, I arrived at their restaurant. We were so happy to see each other again, like a reunion of old friends.
Their family of four are all Vipassana meditators. The brothers let me stay in their room, and exiled themselves onto the living floor. The father runs the only vegetarian restaurant in the city of millions. The mother works in the only organic produce store. Most of her colleagues are also meditators. The shop feels more like a happy meeting point of kindred spirits. Practicing Vipassana meditation does not conflict with their strong faith in Islam. They say, Vipassana makes them better Muslims.
Likewise, my daily meditation practice also seemed to go well with Islam. Sometimes, I shared the sleeping room with my hosts in small Iranian villages. My hosts had perhaps never seen a non-Muslim in their life, much less cross-legged meditation posture. But I assured them that I am practicing "Zikr", the silent remembrance of Allah's name (which is a good metaphor for what meditation actually is). They would immediately get it, and smile approvingly.
One month later, I served a Satipatthana course in Dubai. Lo and behold, 60% of the participants are Iranians. They especially flew in from Iran to sit the course. It was heart-warming for me to have the opportunity to greet these seekers with a few words of Farsi.
Before visiting Dubai, I had always thought of -- or dismissed -- the desert miracle as an unsustainable mirage fueled by oil wealth. After two weeks in this safe haven of the Middle East, my views were largely changed. There's much more to Dubai's success than sheer luck.
Dubai actually has little oil wealth, with less than 5% of the emirate's current revenue coming from the black gold. In fact, the small Persian Gulf port has faired much better than all of its massive oil-rich neighbors. Dubai's success is a story of vision, ambition (of the ruling family), hard work (of mostly immigrants), and good timing.
Up until 60 years ago, Dubai has less culture, history, or wealth than just about any backwater Chinese villages. The well-curated Dubai Museum has to reach liberally into Dubai's neighbor's cultures to cobble together a dignified exhibit about pre-oil Dubai.
Today, Dubai is a world-class city with excellent infrastructure, clean environment, low crime, low corruption, no taxes, good schools for children, and plenty of job opportunities for those willing to work hard. Many immigrants have stayed in Dubai for decades, speak highly of their host country, and would never think of going back.
At the same time, due to its shallow roots, Dubai feels -- and is -- completely man-made and artificial. The water supply depends almost entirely on desalination. Everything is imported, including food.
My first day in Dubai was spent volunteering all day at a Christmas charity sales at an elite polo club. What a great opportunity for people watching and getting to know Dubai! Setting aside the bizarre context of a water-intensive polo club in the middle of the desert, I got to watch spoiled blond kids hopping from table to table, spending their "budget" of just a few hundred dollars, scooping up knock-off Star Wars toys. Their Filipino nannies chase after them. Almost all products were made in China, while the sales tables were mostly staffed by Asians. Darker skinned immigrants hauled trash and manned the bathrooms. You can say it is a colorful melting pot, but not much "real melting" seems to happen within all the diversity.
Another day, I tried to visit one of Dubai's big malls. I walked for 30 minutes straight through the mall, and still could not reach the exit on the other end. It makes the head hurt to think about it: people from all around the world would fly to a desert town, line up to go into a huge aquarium inside of a even larger shopping mall.
However, in the middle of the materialist metropolis, there are many sincere seekers, working as teachers or business people. I have all the more respect for them for upholding their inner practices in such an unfavorable environment.
Each nation a hobby
Every person needs a hobby; so does every civilization. While in Iran, I accompanied a young Iranian couple on their day-long hunt through the Tehran bazaar for a carpet for their new home. After that experience, I would never look at carpets the same way ever again :) It felt like an initiation into the Persian devotion to these glorified floor-covers. Until then, I had hardly noticed the carpets on the floor in Iranian homes, or at best, regarded carpets as extra-large towels. But Iranians seem to pour their creativity, energy, and money(!) into carpets in the same way how the French love their wine and cheese, or how the Chinese worship their tea. Every culture has some obsessions that matter little to outsiders. (The rest of the world gets on just fine without thousand-dollar cushioning on their floor...) But perhaps that's what makes the world so colorful!
Up until arriving in Istanbul, I had had no direct contact with Islam, only with Islamophobia -- either of the Chinese flavor (ethnic tension), or the European flavor (refugee crises), or the American flavor (terrorism paranoia). I had long wished to understand Islam, the fastest growing and the second most populous among the world religions. Spirituality aside, the Islamic world also has dazzling heritage of arts and music, and upheld the torch of learning when Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages.
So, I cherished the opportunity to experience Islam from within, through the life of ordinary people. Turkey, Iran and Dubai (UAE) also happen to offer a sample of three distinct flavors of Islam: Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.
There are many aspects I admire about Islamic way of life, such as their community orientation and hygiene. For example, in many public places in Turkey, the tombstones are equipped with drinking water faucet, so that the deceased could continue to benefit the public.
Whenever I meet real-life Muslims, I am always moved by their joy, warmth, and big-heartedness. However, whenever I try to absorb the theoretical aspects of Islam, I get nowhere. I listened to a few English translations of the Quran, and various books explaining the Islamic faith. I poured through all types of pamphlets at mosques and museums, but still could not quite find an entry.
In particular, the paragraphs in Quran referring to the "disbelievers" sent chills down my spine. It was only through meeting everyday Muslims that my Islamophobia was assuaged.
On the whole, the average Muslim seems more adamant and evangelical about their faith compared to the Christians, and much less the Buddhists. From my personal encounters, Islam's fervor in spreading their religion is only matched by the Mormons. Throughout Europe, where most people are more or less Christian, nobody has ever suggested that I should become a Christian. Nor do they ask me about my religion. In the Middle East, most families I stay with would ask if I am a Muslim. When I explained that I am a "work in progress", they often strongly recommend that I become a Muslim.
On my first morning in Istanbul, as I was walking with my host outside a Sufi tomb, a local men approached us and asked me "what I was". I wasn't yet ready to respond to such direct curiosity, so my host came to my defense by suggesting that I was Buddhist. (Which I am not, by the way.) The men frowned disapprovingly, waved his finger, and said, "Inferno!"
A few days later, while riding the subway in Istanbul, a man was very kind to help me with directions and walked me to the right train. When the conversation came inevitably to religion, he asked, "Are you Buddhist"? I was again at a loss for how to respond, so I said yes. He then made a gesture of cutting throat, and said, "Burma. Buddhist very bad. Kill Muslims."
So, I guess we all have a lot to work on.
The most endearing part of Islam I've experienced is the Sufis. Even in California today, Rumi is the bestselling poet. Sufism also attracts a sophisticated following in the West. I have found Sufism closer to Zen than to mainstream Islam. It is a direct path, lively and surprising, passionate and gentle, infused with warmth and love. (It is perhaps no wonder why some fundamentalists do not consider Sufism a part of Islam.)
One globalized world
Even in smallest villages, the reach of global capitalism is evident. Everyone has a smartphone and Facebook account. In one Turkish family I stayed with, the father drives a French truck that ships frozen chicken feet to China. (Apparently, Turkish people don't eat chicken feet, and the Chinese chicken just couldn't grow feet fast enough to keep up with the domestic demand. The ancient Silk Road might as well be renamed to Chicken Feet Road today.) The shipping containers carrying the chicken feet are made in China by the company where my dad used to work. The young sons of this family are staunch Muslims, but are also big fans of Stephen Curry and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The face of Chinese manufacturing is also changing rapidly. Despite the hopelessness to pronounce their names for most foreigners, Huawei and Xiaomi smartphones are taking over the market. Upon seeing my Chinese passport, the clerk at the Turkish railway office proudly showed me his Huawei smartphone, and said, "very good quality". I was almost overwhelmed to hear such a rare praise for a Chinese brand.
In Iran, many middle class families are buying Chinese cars -- brands that I have never seen in China. These cars are cheap, but increasingly offers good quality and high value for the hard-earned money.
However, the Chinese firms still have a long way to go, and the perception, even longer. In Yazd, an ancient desert city in Iran, I was touring a museum with two German friends. An Iranian uncle at the gate greeted us and asked where we were from. "Oh, Germany! BMW! Mercedes! Tell me, how much does a Mercedes cost?" He took out a pen and paper and was ready to write down the price of a Mercedes, as if that knowledge alone would elevate his status. When it came to my turn, he waved the same piece of paper and said dismissively, "Oh, China, only copy copy!" My German friends had a mixture of sympathetic embarrassment and irrepressible pride on their face :)
Readying for home
At some point in Turkey, I realized that I was about ready to "return home" to China -- not yet, but soon. The signs were many. For one, the pilgrimage around the world had given me new eyes to see China, new questions and dimensions to discover "home" again. I realized that I had never traveled through China like I was traveling in Turkey, just like I had never asked my own parents the questions I was asking the strangers along the way. Now, I had gained the distance -- and more importantly, the curiosity and humility -- to look within, within my own country, and within myself. Truly, as Lao Tze said in the Dao De Jing, "Through my body, I gain insight into all bodies. Through my family, I gain insight into all families. Through my country, I gain insight into all countries. How do I know the nature of things? Just like this."
Another sign that the pilgrim was readying for home was a growing dissatisfaction -- or you can say fatigue -- in scratching only the surface of a place and culture. Due to the language barrier and visa duration limit, my study of each country was quite constrained. It was especially apparent when I tried to read the English translations of the Quran -- it doesn't work. True, there is value in variety, but after so much "variety", I felt that the "depth" and "width" were getting out of proportion. Going around the world has helped to "get out of my system" the illusion that grass might be greener on the other side, or that there is "something out there".
Lao Tze has it again, "The further one travels, the less one knows. Thus the Sage knows without traveling, understands without seeing, and accomplishes without doing."
A pilgrimage around the globe by bicycle, in service of the ecological and spiritual awakening of our time.