This is a massively long post – sorry!
For those of my readers for whom Amynah is a only an occasional name on the blog (perhaps a figure of my writerly imagination), some background. Amynah is an Ismaili Muslim, a small Shi’a religion with roughly 15 million members worldwide. They are one of the only Islamic sects with a living spiritual leader, a man known as the Aga Khan (or His Highness, or the Imam).
The present Aga Khan took on the job from his grandfather in 1957. Starting last year, the Ismaili’s worldwide began celebrating the Golden Jubilee – the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Aga Khan’s tenure.
There are many events to commemorate this, but the most eagerly anticipated are the “Darbars” (or Deedars, depending on one’s orthographic whimsy). These are gatherings of the faithful to hear the Imam speak. For the Golden Jublilee, the Aga Khan visited Dubai, Syria, India, several cities in Canada and the United States and Singapore, among others. This summer, I accompanied Amynah to the one in London. This week was then final one of the Golden Jubilee Year, in Paris.
Being a minority with a somewhat mystical bent, and a living leader who traces his spiritual authority directly back to the Prophet Mohammed, the Ismaili’s have historically had a rough time of it, vis a vis their fellow Muslims. With the exception of a Golden Age some thousand years ago, Ismaili history is one of persecution divided, as Amynah says, into “The Greater Hiding Period” and the “Lesser Hiding Period.” That’s not entirely ancient history either – Canada’s population of Ismaili’s is disproportionately large because our then-Prime Minister agreed to accept as refugees thousands of members of the community that were being exiled from Idi Amin’s Uganda and fleeing from nearby Kenya and other African countries.
It would be easy, with a history like that, for a community to draw in on itself, remaining inward looking a secretive. However, the advantage of having a living spiritual leader is that the community remains adaptable, able to evolve with the modern world. Under the current Aga Khan the Ismaili’s reach out, not in – the Aga Khan Development Network is one of the most effective of its kind, operating through much of Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia. They build schools, establish business, found universities and preserve significant heritage sites.
For the last Darbar we attended, in London, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the room set aside for non-Ismaili family members, chatting with other hangers-on while we waited for the prayers to finish so we could get to the food and dancing. While I met some interesting people this way, and Amynah’s friends and family were very good at checking in on me to say hi, for the most part I was bored out of my mind.
The Darbars, especially in Europe and North America, are enormous events. There were 35,000 people at the London event. The French Ismaili community is much smaller than those of Britain or Canada, but – as this was the final Darbar of the year - they were planning for some 20,000 people to show up. Knowing that the local congregation was likely to be overwhelmed, Amynah and I decided to sign up as volunteers.
Amynah had sent in forms to register us as attendees, indicating our willingness to earn our supper. A week or so before we were to leave for Paris, I received a phone call, from a Chamsia in Paris, telling us that Amynah was signed up for “communication” – helping to coordinate the radio traffic between the various teams. I told her that I was available as well, and so she added me to the schedule.
A few days later, I received a phone call, telling me that I had been signed up to work the Parking detail. I said fine, and, having guessed from my name that I was not Ismaili, the caller told me to contact the non-Ismaili-spouses coordinator. I did so, thinking I was just letting him manage his numbers.
We showed up Wednesday evening at the Paris Conference and Exposition centre, not far from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. For reasons not entirely clear to me, the registration process to get into the Darbar is somewhat more involved than that required to board an international flight. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that as there is no active “jamat” (mosque) in Strasbourg, Amynah had registered us on-line as coming from abroad (as it was, one of the women at the desk actually said, with unbridled Parisian hauteur “They’re from Strasbourg? That’s not in France.”) Even so, this was easier than the registration process for London, which I took on myself while Amynah was in prayers: thrown by our differing last names, the officials at the registration desk demanded that I present both of our passports and a wedding certificate. I lacked the latter, but finally convinced them to give me our event passes through a combination of a wedding photo I keep in my wallet and crying).
After registering, Amynah and I found our way to the communications room, which was tucked away in the nether reaches of the enormous complex. On arrival, we were greeted by coordinators Chamsia and Rheishman, both of whom appeared to have been on the go for the previous 72 hours straight. Our job, it was explained to us, was to monitor one of the ten radio frequencies in use. Most of the traffic would be irrelevant, but if someone from one team needed to call another team (“Parking” for “Medical,” for instance) they would ask us to patch it through.
It should give you some idea of how desperate for volunteers they were that they put me, a man whose French breaks down entirely when deprived of facial cues to glean meaning, on the radios, whose static-to-language ratio was roughly 1:1. Fortunately, they put me on “Frequency 1,” which was nominally reserved for the big-wigs, all of whom were in meetings with each other for the duration of the event. I therefore spent three-hours on the first evening listening to absolutely nothing, during which time I sketched out a plot for my next novel (I got as far as the aliens landing in post-Revolutionary France, but am unsure how to link them to zombie-Napoleon).
Fun Fact:: “Walkie-talkie” in French? Talkie-walkie. Ask me not why.
The next day, Amynah and I woke up at 6 AM to catch the commuter train from our hotel near the Gare d’Est to the Exhibition grounds. On arrival, we tried to acquire some Volunteer identification at the registration desk, only to be told that they had run out. I was also told that I had been expected in Parking some two hours earlier, and was scheduled for the non-Ismaili spouses zone for the afternoon. Somehow, between those two tasks and Communication, I had been triple-booked.
Discretion being the better part of valour, and having forgotten my toque, I elected to check in with Chamsia and Reichman in Communications before wandering outside in the cold to play traffic cop. I told Chamsia about my dilemma – she said she would contact the parking guys to find out where I was needed most. I do not know how sincere she was – she never had a full table of radio monitors, so I doubt she was eager to lose even incompetent staff. In any case, I never saw her make the call, but she did put me on Frequency 10 – monitoring the Parking guys I was supposed to be assisting.
For the most part this went smoothly – they only called in twice, and both times I calmly shouted “Un moment s’il vous plait” before throwing my “talkie-walkie” at Chamsia as if it were a disgruntled cobra. At some point, I heard one volunteer radio another asking what to do with “Un Anglais” that had shown up looking to help. He was told to station him near the main gate. Twenty minutes later, a message came though: “We’re getting complaints about the guy at the front gate – he doesn’t speak a word of French.” Meanwhile I sat, helpless (yet warm) in Communications Central, cursing the fates: That should have been me, damnit!
As the morning wore on, more volunteers poured in, and Chamsia felt confident enough to set me free. As the guys in Parking sounded like they now had things under control (also, they sounded very cold) I made my way over to the non-Ismaili area. Things here were much calmer – I asked what I could do, and was told to inform the dozen or so people that had shown up so far that food was available on the enormous food-bearing table that they had to walk around in order to take their seats. I did so, earning the bemused looks one would expect under the circumstances.
Looking to do something a little more productive, I offered to give the two ladies behind said table a break. They were suspiciously grateful, and assured me they would “Be right back” before disappearing, never to be seen again. Running the table was no hardship – the only hard part was fending off the hordes of people streaming by the table who were stealing sandwiches to which they were not entitled (not surprisingly, I had trouble, as a non-Ismaili, stating with any conviction that the free food at an Ismaili event, paid for by Ismailiis, was off limits to everyone but non-Ismailis, especially as it was all came from the same storage area down the hall).
After some time I was joined behind the table by Collette, a woman originally from Burkino Faso, now a resident of Montreal. Together, we made sure that none of the 200 or so non-Ismailis present ever wanted for a croissant or tea. Truly we were heroes.
Collette, I discovered, had a wonderfully open view towards religion in general. At one point, she saw a man pass by with a thusby, which is a set of prayer beads used by Ismailis. She asked where he had acquired it and he (and this is utterly typical of the kind of generosity I see all the time at such events) gave it to her without a moment’s hesitation. As Collette returned to the table, counting off the beads as she prayed, I asked her if she was Muslim, to which she replied no, she was Catholic: “But I know how to use this.” I thought it was great, though I’m sure the Pope would not approve.
While all this was going on, all of the Ismailiis in the hall had retreated into the Darbar Hall for the ceremonies. These lasted roughly two hours, during which the faithful were addressed by the Aga Khan, who arrived earler with his family.
For the Jubilee Year, His Highness has made a point of coming outside of the Darbar hall to speak with the non-Ismailis gathered outside. In London, there were roughly 700 of us, and as I was helping with crowd control, I ended up in the back and thus didn’t get very close to where he eventually spoke. This time, there were only 200 of us, tops, and I got into the front row, thanks to some speedy footwork on Collette’s part. This did not occur without some difficulty: they ran us through metal detectors beforehand, and confiscated my nail-clippers. Were they perhaps afraid that I was going to groom him? (To his credit, the security guy who took them from me tracked me down ten minutes later to give me a tag so that I could reclaim them. That’s dedication!)
It has been pointed out to me many, many times that this is a great privilege – Amynah’s never had such an intimate audience with His Highness in her life, and here I was within handshaking distance. So, for my Ismaili readers, I’m going to do my best to relay what was said, though I’m afraid I can’t do a very good job.
He took the podium, having changed out of his traditional clothes into a suit. He seemed to be in a good mood, though his voice was a little hoarse from speaking at the Darbar. He spoke in French, so much of the subtleties of the message were probably lost on me.
First, he thanked us all for coming, and welcomed us into the community, even if not as Ismailiis. He said that Ismailiis were a people that believed in pluralism, and were a part of the Western world, but were also very much a part of the Muslim world, not apart from it, despite theological differences. He then spoke of the work of his charitable foundations, especially the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN): It was through pluralism, and strong institutions that societies thrived: countries like Bangladesh and Kenya may have their political troubles, but are by and large peaceful countries, and that is because their citizens have a sense of civil society – over time, that will translate into stability. To that end, he invited all of the non-Ismailis present to contribute what time or expertise they had to the AKDN, to further this goal of building more pluralist, “cosmopolitan” societies world-wide.
It was only a brief speech, but afterwards he stepped down to greet people more personally. We’d all been told not to address his unless we were spoken to, but when he came near where I was standing, Collette, standing beside me, couldn’t resist, asking for a blessing by calling out “Benediction! Benediction!” I don’t think he heard, much to her disappointment.
He moved on shortly thereafter, but it was inspiring nonetheless: in the last few weeks, the Aga Khan had done Darbars in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Singapore, returning to Canada again to open a Centre in Ottawa. That is a grueling schedule, especially for a 72-year-old. That he cared enough to speak to a miniscule crowd as us on what must have been a long day showed a commitment to his message, and to living what he speaks.
The rest of the day went pretty quickly – once the Darbar was over, the feasting and dancing could begin. Amynah and I returned to the “talkie-walkie” room, but the channels were all dead, as 18,000 people caught up with friends and family and ate the lamb-curry that was being ladled out by the ton in the main hall. Eventually Amynah’s relatives from England found us, so we managed a mini-family reunion, albeit one partially spent cleaning ear-wax out of returned radio-headphones. I was eager to see if we could find more people we knew from Canada, but the night was getting on - we left our friend from Montreal (in Europe working for the AKDN) near the stage, where the band had the remaining crowd bashing sticks and dancing in circles for the dandiya. Amynah and I caught the last train back to our hotel, in order to catch four hours of sleep before heading home to Strasbourg.