Sunday, October 4, 2009

safia chisti

Not all the stories in our lives are about us personally. How could they be? We're naturally social creatures and not the paranoid, selfish, violent beings the media likes to foist on us as a way of coercing our decisions. This is a story about a woman I knew and how her life was changed by the kindness of strangers.

In the late 1980's I was living in Providence, RI where at the advanced age of 42 - yes, the meaning of life, the universe and everything age according to Douglas Adams - I was the proud owner and driver of my very first car. It was a standard shift little red Pontiac leMans which I loved. She could fly and I was her pilot. An old friend called me one afternoon from Philadelphia and asked if I'd be able to drive a woman she knew from Providence to New York. All she told me was that I'd find the woman a very interesting travel companion for the three and a half hour journey and that the trip would involve an overnight stay. I really didn't need much convincing and agreed to pick up my mysterious passenger the following afternoon.

I met Safia Chisti at her daughter's house in North Providence, noticing nothing unusual about her as she walked down the steps from the old tenement, nothing about her that made her appear different from any other middle-aged white woman other than perhaps the scarf she wore covering her hair. We introduced ourselves and she put her little bag on the back seat, took the co-pilot position and off we went. I soon learned my friend had been correct about the lady being interesting.

Safia Chisti wasn't the name she had been born with, nor was it a name she'd gained from marrying Mr. Chisti. She'd had a normal American name which I knew once but have forgotten now. To me she was always Safia. Before circumstances saw her change her name and her life she had been the divorced mother of a grown-up married daughter and was a Providence city bus driver. She had also recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. I don't know how familiar you may be with that disease but twenty years ago there were no targeted treatments like there are now and the diagnosis was essentially a six month death sentence.

Her only option was to keep working as long as she could. One day when she stopped downtown to pick up passengers a rather nondescript man climbed on board, paid his fare then stopped and looked at her. Taking a slip of paper from an inside pocket he told her, 'You have to go here as quickly as possible. Your life depends on it.' Naturally she wondered if he was planning to hijack the bus to Worcester, MA or some other place not on her usual route but he got off the bus leaving her with the piece of paper. On it was written a very foreign sounding name and an address in Pakistan.

Well, what's a woman going to do? Most would throw away the piece of paper, forget the whole incident and just keep on with the normal routine until they couldn't get out of bed one day. Not Safia. Safia went to the post office, had a passport photograph taken, sent off the documents and bought a ticket to Islamabad. Two weeks later she was in Pakistan with the piece of paper, a sleeping bag, a suitcase and her purse. Rather than finding a hotel she showed the paper to a taxi driver who took her to a small building standing next to an unprepossessing mosque - a neighborhood place rather than one of the enormous ones. Oddly enough the man who opened the door wasn't surprised to find her standing there and better still, spoke English. He welcomed her inside for tea and sweets and a closer look both at her and the now rather worn piece of paper that had brought her to his doorstep.

He told her about a Sufi master who lived a hermit's life in the Himalayan mountain region of the country and told her that's who had sent for her. Oh my. It's hard to imagine, isn't it? She was instructed to make her way to the northern border with China and was given another paper where he'd written the instructions in English for her and Urdu for anyone she'd need to consult for help on the way. She left by bus early the following morning, a trip that lasted days and transfers to buses more and more local all the way to the region where the world's second tallest mountain stands, K-2. When there were no more buses she walked for miles, eventually climbing to the hermitage where she met the elderly man who would be her teacher for the following two years. Not only did he not speak English, he wasn't particularly happy to see her either. Through sign language he indicated that he expected her to work - which she did. Safia cleaned, carried water and wood and cooked. The teacher taught her to pray. He gave her a new name. He also taught her to speak Urdu and to read and write Arabic. After a little more than two years he told her it was time she went home.

Anyway, although we were driving to New York, our destination was in Spring Valley west of the Hudson River in the Catskills - Rip vanWinkle territory, yes, and 20 miles outside Manhattan. The Sheikh was called Tosen Baba and was a professor of mathematics at Columbia during the week. We arrived at the mosque in good time for a wonderful dinner and a chance for me to converse with some very interesting people before the evening prayers, the teachings and the group Zhikr, the remembrance of God. There's no way to describe the warmth and beauty of inclusion in a Sufi Circle and although I was, as a first time visitor, shy and reluctant to participate I was drawn into the company of the women's position at the back of the mosque. In fact, I made sure to stand behind all of them. The prayers and the music were astounding to me and, although I'm not overtly emotional, tears streamed down my face.

Safia left for her home in Philadelphia the next morning after breakfast and I went home too. The following Saturday found me back on the road to New York alone and listening to the Paris Concerts of the famous Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan she had given me as a parting gift with the admonishment that one is never supposed to dance to Qawwali music no matter how tempted one may be. Only moving the head is acceptable. So I moved my head in time to one piece after another while the driving time flew by. Unfortunately, I was so wrapped up in the music and the idea of another evening with the Sufis I missed the exit I was supposed to take from the highway and not long after found myself barreling down the Bronx Expressway on my way to the city center. It was after 5 o'clock, getting dark this autumn night and raining heavily. Not knowing what else to do I made a right turn into the huge empty parking lot of an old commuter station so I could at least stop and try to figure out how to get back to 95 and the correct exit. A car followed mine into the lot and parked next to me. When I looked over I breathed a sigh of relief to see it was a woman driving and that she was waving me to roll down the window. I don't know how in the dark and the pouring rain but she'd noticed I looked lost and was there to help. When I told her where I was supposed to be going she gave me very clear directions for the quickest way to Hwy 87 west.

Within an hour I was in the town of Spring Valley again but couldn't remember how to get to the address. Pulling up at a stop light I tried to remember landmarks Safia and I had passed the week before. Somehow everything looked very different this time and I was kicking myself for not having paid better attention. A young guy crossing the street came over to my side of the car and motioned that he wanted to talk to me. I opened the window a little way both to keep the rain out and for the old paranoid reasons (after all this was the US and not someplace safe like Pakistan) but he too asked if I was lost. It seemed I was giving signals I wasn't aware of. Anyway, I told him the address I was looking for and he told me how to get there and ran off to somewhere drier than the middle of the street.

Not long after I found the narrow drive that led up to Tosen Baba's house and the attached mosque. The rain had stopped and the clouds had blown away leaving a beautiful starry nighttime sky. People had begun arriving for Zhikr and I wondered who I'd meet and what I'd learn that night.

Going there on Saturday evenings became a regular, if infrequent, habit for several years after that and when Safia was in Providence seeing her daughter she came with me. I never did become a Sufi in spite of the appeal and eventually we moved out to the west coast. Safia lived for another five joy-filled years. She'd found what she was looking for.


  1. it's no easy thing leaving a bus route to go to pakistan. to be able to "throw everything to the wind" is a gift only bestowed on the foolish. or the very brave.
    i don't know if i really believe everything happens for a reason. i like to think that it does, that everything has meaning. certainly, i can point to experiences-- insights and flashes of being-- too pure to not be mystical.
    some people are able to find and live that purity. (other people are blessed with happy families or good health or beautiful teeth, almost by accident) so it feels good to hear that somebody found what they were looking for.
    and its especially good that they were able to share a bit of that with you.
    and you, to share same with us, with me.
    p.s. love your drawings too!

  2. I'm selfish today, and I want to go away and become someone else. The idea that she went away, so far away, to a land where they didn't speak her language, it's so bold and brave. I wonder if I'd have the guts to do that, especially at this time of my life.
    I'm sitting here day dreaming now. Your story has filled my mind with thoughts of what went on with her while she was away, what she was doing and thinking.
    Thanks for giving that to me this morning.
    I really like your drawings. I can't describe the feeling, but I just look at them, no, stare at them. Believe this or not, but I look at the drawings and see them "move" and become live, maybe like the myopic thing, I dunno.
    Just what I needed, a story to read this early a.m.


  3. Such fascinating journeys that Safia took and you did too! Thanks for the dream-fairy-mystic-like telling, so very unreal for me in my very ordinary life but appealing for its magic. Love the illustrations as always.

  4. It is so interesting to see your work here and on your other blog. You have such a gift for colour and yet something about black and white is so perfect for your stories. It as if the past in black and white and the now is in colour. Your words breath so much life and vitality into the images that they seem almost like a painting in a Harry Potter movie where within the painting is a living and sentient being who can move around and relate to the viewer.
    Safia is alive in your story and your words. I can even here the music and feel myself sitting in the back seat of the red LeMans.

  5. Wow what an amazing story. Truly an adventure for both of you!

  6. An interesting story with your usual lovely drawings cleverly expressed in the spirit of youthful idealism joining with your remarkable handmaiden I rename providence.

    How remarkable you have weaved the story around the aptly named creative centre of Providence – to fly around the globe of ideas but return to find a 'Sarana' or "Sanctuary" as it is called in Sanskrit.

    Best wishes

  7. sera - I wonder what any of us would do having been told we had only a short time left to feel well and in control of our lives. I've known silly people who went off seeking adventure, some of whom were lost, but my friend Safia was unusual in that she'd lived a very ordinary American life up until that moment.

    spadoman - What was extraordinary to me was hearing that the teacher wasn't even especially interested in her. I've heard similar stories about masters and students since then (it's apparently a time tested teaching method of those with inflated egos) but that was the first time and it blew me away.

    I'm glad you like the drawings. It's a pretty intense exercise for me :-)

    marja-leena - Safia's journeys left all of my travels in the dust. Adventures in Europe and North America didn't quite match up.

    belette - It's a funny thing but I work entirely differently when I do the pen and ink drawings from the way I draw for planned paintings. The plans for the silk paintings are in-between the extremes.

    What very nice compliments you've given me and all the more appreciated since they come from a very talented writer.

    jams - I'm so glad you came by to read one of my stories.. all true or mostly true :-)

    lindsay - I'm delighted you enjoyed it and your interpretations of my work are always fascinating in and of themselves. Providence is a strange city with many more secrets than were opened to me.

  8. most people live ordinary lives.
    what a precious gift that is.

  9. That was a very cool story. I just love the part where she finds herself standing in Pakistan with the piece of paper, a sleeping bag, a suitcase and her purse. I could just picture it in my head.

    I love the way you just sucks me into the story.


  10. Speak for yourself, I'm very paranoid and selfish. ;-) And I don't think I could ever do what she did.

  11. sera - It took me a long time to learn how true that is.

    nunly - Ah yes, how much braver to do such a thing than to get flown in with your buddies in the military. You would have liked her.

    randal - Her lesson to me is that none of us know what we'll do depending on the circumstance.

  12. Wonderful story and drawings, Susan. Pulled me in and took me along for the great ride through the universe. I hope to meet a Safia someday. I hope to meet you, someday, too! Oh, the stories you could tell.


  13. susan, you have moved me to tears with this one...a long unspoken dream, a story unraveled that didn't no matter the journey, bravery above all else or perhaps something even deeper, quieter, stronger than the thread of silk spun... I could imagine your words as if we sat together in a dimly lit room... your friend's courage and tenacity, some of that spirit must have kept her with this world much longer than had been predicted...the wondrous nature of the Sufi, the expectation of the miraculous in everyday, what a magical interlude for me this night, after the medical ups and downs of the past couple of could have no idea and this was posted a few days ago besides and so, I was meant to come across it tonight, alone in the dark but for the white glow of my little laptop screen...and your magical sharing has not crept away to my mind's recesses but lingers, like incense on the breeze...

    thank you...

  14. i am sorry, i was so engrossed with my own feelings and thoughts, i forgot to mention the talent you possess in your drawings...somehow by telling the story in black and white, no color, it doesn't get in the way and thus, tell it's own have a way with the crook in the neck as the head is cocked just so or the bent forward determination as the woman crossed to the black opening of the unknown that comes across as if by magical sign language, one we all understand but it's so subtle, we aren't aware you are moving us to your own beat...I have decided it's simply your gift, not to be copied nor explained, it's just what is..brilliant.

  15. the crow - Safia was a pretty neat lady and very intense. I'm delighted you enjoyed her story.

    linda - Your words describing what the story and drawings have meant to you have deeply touched my heart. I am deeply happy that you enjoyed it in the way I'd hoped it would work. Safia was an amazing lady - one I'll never forget.

  16. i managed to stay awake all the way through your delightful and heartwarming bedtime story.... the difficulty staying alert is no reflection on content and illustrations. both as brilliant as ever.... weariness a result of exhaustion induced by overwork and stress..... so i'm nodding off now. will try to post something vaguely interesting soon.... thanks ever so, dear lady.

  17. g-fid - I'm glad to know you're tired but well and happy you enjoyed the story. The evening can't be done until a favorite reader or two have dropped by.

  18. A very interesting story! I knew someone that was into Sufi as well. I thought it was interesting.

  19. dr. zaius - Unfortunately, Christianity's mystic branch was chopped off by the Emperor Constantine about 300 years after it began.

  20. What an amazing story! And I love that you illustrated someone else's memories with as much exuberance and detail as you do your own. Life is wilder than we generally credit - if we will listen... Thanks for sharing this!!! It comes at a perfect time, when I am puzzling over a possible intersection in my life.

  21. steve - I'm so glad you came by to read it. Our lives are more like tapestries than trips along highways with clear road signs, yes?

  22. Susan, That insight about the tapestries... that sounds so right. So much more than one line, one thread. So many weavers. Many we'll never realize or recall...

  23. steve - That's something I've thought about often. We never know what effect we'll have on anyone so it's best to keep our hearts open.

  24. Yeah! Emperor Constantine was such a dickhead!

  25. dr. zaius - He was. Had it not been for him Christianity might have been Christian. Of course, he didn't even embrace the version he foisted on the world until he was sure he was on his death bed :-)

  26. braja - It's good to find something that can't be lost.

  27. i miss you little stories and drawings.
    and now i want to throw "everything to the wind" and go somewhere else. studying abroad. i'd even work in a bakery for six months in new zealand, just for the experience of being somewhere else for a while.

  28. sera - I miss writing the little stories too but I'm not sure how to return to the sweet naivety. Then there are the ones where my lessons were hard. For now, I've gone back to some real (for me) painting and I was just getting ready to post the most recent when I saw your note. I've always wanted to see New Zealand and think I'd be happy in a bakery there forever.

  29. Hi Susan,
    Thanks for your wonderful blog. I saw an earlier blog from 2009 about David Orcutt. I was a close friend of David's in the late 1980's, early 1990's. I lived at Perryland and we traveled to Ireland and Asia together. Sadly, I didn't know David had passed away until recently. Do you know how I can get in touch with Belle? I would like to talk to her about David. You can email me at Peace and thanks, Sarah

  30. Dear Susan,

    Thank you for your encouragement on Ian's blog. I came to your blog for the first time and was spellbound to see your sketches. Kind comments from talented people like you make one feel blessed too!

    I was reading your excellent posts but I couldn't help but comment on this strange post of yours. It is so beautiful and surreal that it is inspiring me to write another short story. I insist it is 'strange' because of the outstanding beauty and deep message hidden in it. We are so engrossed with our physical world that we forget that there could be something else beyond us. Really, who knows the people you met on the road could be God sent or not. Even if they are living breathing human beings, what business they had to come and guide you unless there was some cosmic connection in it.
    It is an amazing post and I can't thank you enough for this.

    Be well!

    1. Hi Ghetu,

      I'm very pleased to make your make your acquaintance and delighted to know you've been by to visit. It's wonderful you and Ian found one another and that he's provided you with a wider audience. Your writing is so impressive I'm quite at a loss for compliments worthy of the magnificent pieces of short fiction I've had the opportunity to read. Now I've linked directly to your main blog and will come by to visit.

      Thank you for leaving such a kind note about 'Safia Chisti'. Her story provided me with a means to describe an ineffable series of experiences that also relate to our modern hard-edged background. We in the West have been conditioned to only take seriously that which is material but that isn't all that is.

      Very best wishes,