Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pilgrimage as Window and Mirror

I just returned from a trip to Turkey as a guest of the Pacifica Institute, a Turkish-American group that sponsors inter-cultural dialogue. Whether it's called pilgrimage or dialogue, travel like this is simultaneously a window and a mirror. At once, it throws open a window into another culture, and Turkey's is rich, complex, and multi-faceted. I was so busy looking, I couldn't determine how large or small the aperture was.

Simultaneously, the trip was a mirror reflecting back to me my own culture, its gifts and its limitations. Moments of surprise and delight, incomprehension and even disgust taught me most. I watched eighteen-year-old boys clearing tables and serving dessert at one of our host family visits, and I wondered: where would I see this in Berkeley? I marveled at the cascading domes of Istanbul's Blue Mosque, contrasting it with the verticality of Abbot Suger's St. Denys outside of Paris, and I began to revise my understanding of sacred space. I listened to language of "social responsibility" and pondered how that translated in civil discourse in my own country. And then there were the dogs: they slunk around everywhere, while cats enjoyed privileged reverence. Suddenly, I found myself examining, not Turkish culture, but the landscape of my own.

Shopping offers a rough analogy -- and we did lots of it, mostly in open-air bazaars, but occasionally in cities. We'd look through scrubbed windows at all the pretty, glittery things, literally eating them with our eyes. Then, we'd catch a glimpse of ourselves looking, peering with a gaze of -- what? Longing, delight, yearning?

Travel -- even and especially pilgrimage -- is like this: simultaneously a window into another culture and a mirror to our own. It's important to acknowledge at the outset a finite point-of-view. Again and again, on the streets of Istanbul or Konya or Antalya, I ran into the limitations of my own conceptual apparatus to even begin to grasp what I was seeing and hearing. I kept being tempted to stuff the experience into categories I instantly discovered to be too narrow or wholly inadequate. Still, it wasn't the case that I knew nothing.

How to speak with modesty and humility: this is what I know?

I recall the account of a Cree Indian asked to give testimony at a trial. Asked to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, he paused, then said: "I can only tell you what I know." (Cited in the introduction to James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1986, 8.)

That knowing is always partial. But at least putting it down begins to identify the lacunae.

No comments:

Post a Comment