Sunday, October 4, 2009
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.