Yassin, Olivia's husband, invited me to come with him to "an American barbecue" in Witten on Easter. There was a group America visiting the German sufi group, and the grill was in their honor. I knew it was going to have a sufi element, so I kept an open mind, just as I did when I went to Mallorca. However, I was in no way prepared for what I found at that "barbecue."
We decided to go out Saturday night, sleep there, and then stay for the party on Sunday. The house was in the countryside outside Witten, which is a small town close to Dortmund. The countryside was charming, with meadows (we know how I feel about meadows), wooden fences, and rolling hills. It was really very picturesque. The house we stayed in was large, with three stories; the first story was a mosque with a kitchen, and families lived in the other two. Yassin gave me this picture that he took, but I think it is actually the house next door to the place we stayed.
We had dinner on the floor of the mosque by laying some sheets down and using that as a table. People were sitting down, and once again, when he entered everyone stood. Camilla, a woman who lives at the house with her family, filled a plate for him and set it down in front of him. Then the rest of us started filling our plates. I initially felt really uncomfortable by the way they were treating him like some sort of master, but then I realized that Sufism is not a western practice, and in the non-western world this sort of interaction is more common. For example, in aikido we bow to the sensei as a form of respect. Most people don't consider that weird because they realize that the martial art comes from Japan, where showing respect is extremely important. However, when we see it in contexts outside of a dojo we become uncomfortable with it because it reminds us of a cult. So, with my aikido training in mind, I did not judge the people based on how they treated Murshid.
As we ate, we talked about completely ordinary things--in fact, we talked about aikido. It turns out that Murshid used to practice aikido, and has a deep respect for the art. He's also a musician (guitar) with a band that toured Europe. He cusses and makes witty jokes and is completely normal other than the fact that he is a spiritual leader. Hell, he reminds me of a boss I used to have at Sonic.
During dinner I also got to see him performing his role as a spiritual leader. People would ask him questions and he gave advice/words of wisdom. I was at the house a few nights, so I saw it multiple times, and I have to admit that the first night I was not very impressed. Maybe I just have more figured out about life than I thought, but I didn't hear anything I hadn't already figured out for myself. However, the subsequent nights I thought his insights were much more profound, and even led me to a break-through with something I had been struggling with. People wrote down what he was saying during/after dinner and there was an air of total respect as they listened to his words.
Now, I realize that he is a charismatic man, so I made sure not to let myself get sucked into all of this by keeping an open but critical mind. While I let myself enjoy the experience and learn from it by fully immersing myself in it, I kept a bit of mental distance. On the other hand, I also made sure not to be reactive and judgmental of the situation. Call this group whatever you want, they were kind, compassionate people who were otherwise completely normal. Being part of this religion was adding richness to their lives, not detracting from it, and they weren't hurting anyone. As Camilla's parents told her, "We may not understand your religion, but something is working."
Although Saturday was only the first night of many that I spent with them, I felt very at ease and at home, in spite of being in the middle of a foreign, yet beautiful spiritual group. As I tell you about my experiences with them, my only request is that you too keep an open mind.
Lots of love,