Thursday, June 08, 2006

Conversing with Islam

Flying with the Moonshadow, by Richard Emblin.

I have flown with Moon shadow. The author of it, Mr.Yusuf Islam, I mean, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. It happened several years ago and as I write this story, it seems as familiar to me now, as it was back then. It was December 1993 and I was about to leave India.

Now I know there are many people who have traveled with or sat next to important people on airplanes. This is not new. My brother shuttles between New York and Los Angeles, and has chatted to musicians and has had several champagne encounters with media moguls and highflying supermodels. But my encounter with Islam - Yusuf -to be precise, was in a strange way a religious experience.

Now for most people flying a religion don’t mix. There is nothing saintly about the treatment one receives these days from flight attendants, and airline food is quite, simply, ungodly. That’s if you are lucky to be given any at all. Flying like other aspects of our lives has become a chore. Something to do and be done with the least amount of resistance, and god forbid that the person next to you wants to start a conversation. In our age of global terror, too many people are striking up a lot more than just a conversation.

But when this story took place the WTC still stood and the islamic world was not at war. So, after three months exploring India, it was time to head home and face a grueling twenty-two hour flight back to Toronto, from New Delhi. My flight wasn’t the ‘red eye’ but a black-lung. After backpacking my way across the Indian subcontinent - and to avoid infections and other diseases, which are common to staying in negative five star hotels - I decided to smoke abundantly to kill the smells of India’s dirty streets. Smoking myself to death wasn’t really intentional, but I did and despite the fact that I had been vaccinated against virtually every known disease, I still managed to pick up malaria somewhere between Varanasi and Agra.

Smoking three packets of Goldflake cigarettes and finishing off with hand rolled cigars -biddies -did not help me, so I was forced to return home early to Toronto on a cheap ticket via Amman, Amsterdam and Montreal with a severe case of bronchitis.

Now in India everyone arrives and leaves the country before the crack of dawn - or should I say before ‘morning has broken’, in honour of my traveling companion Mr. Islam, who wrote a song back in 1971 with this title. We started boarding Royal Jordanian Airlines flight 193 to Amman, around four-thirty in the morning as a thick blanket of haze and smog engulfed Indira Ghandi International airport. The plane glowed like a firefly out on the tarmac and one by one we started looking for our assigned seats. I placed my camera bag into the overhead luggage bin, while others neatly stowed away their Persian prayer carpets.

At the front of the plane, the flight attendants boiled the breakfast tea and coffee. As I hoisted myself into a window seat, behind the wing, to catch my last Indian sunrise- a must when in India –I noticed a tall, bearded man staring at his boarding pass, wearing a small white headpiece, and dressed like a monk. He was the last passenger on the plane and precisely –as luck would have it - came and stood in the aisle, next to me. “Excuse me sir, is this seat taken?” he asked. I smiled and asked him, “What’s your number?” “24B” he replied. “Then this is it”.

As the final carpets found their resting place in the overhead compartments and the piped music of the Arab world’s greatest hits switched off, I realized that my traveling companion still hadn’t fastened his seatbelt. “May I help you with that” I asked pointing to the metal buckles of his belt. “Yes, thank you. That would be kind”, he answered as I pulled hard on the straps. And then we began to roll. The engines fanned up and the cabin lights dimmed as I pressed my nose to the window to have one last Indian moment and witness the great ball of fire rising in the east.

Poised at the end of the runway, my softly spoken traveling companion produced a rather large, leather bound book, from under the seat in front of him and grasped it firmly in his hands. Opening to page one, he began a humming to himself. Thinking that my bearded friend had had a head start with his morning prayers, I quickly blessed myself with the sign of the cross to give some leverage to my faith, and thought about the grueling eight hours which awaited me with the singing pilgrim. Little did I know that I had the window seat for the concert of my life.

“Aaaaaaalllaaaahhhh. Aaaaalllaaaaahhh’ began the chant on page one of the great book. Islam was in deep contemplation as we took off and climbed into clear skies. I tried to block out the droning of the engines by watching the Indian villages and farms fade from my view.

Then came the question. ‘Have you ever read the Qu’oran?’ asked my traveling companion, as we waited for the flight attendants in their smart, cranberry suits to serve us some hot tea and coffee. ‘No, I answered with sincerity. ‘I have not’. ‘It’s the greatest book of all’ came the reply.

Then the investigative journalist came out in me. ‘Where are you from Sir - I asked politely - as my friend had a pronounced English accent. ‘I am from England’ he responded sipping his breakfast tea. ‘And are you heading home?’. ‘No, I live in India’. ‘But I am heading to Boston to visit friends’. ‘How about you?’, he inquired. ‘I am heading to Toronto’ came my reply. ‘Must be nice and cold at this time of the year’. Let me remind you, as you read this story, that any conversation about Canada, always starts up and ends, with the weather.

We did small talk over the Arabian sea. But the conversation took a spiritual leap. I was in the final stages of life with malaria and Islam took pity on me. ‘Would you like to join me in singing a song?’ asked the passenger in the seat next to me. ‘Why not’, I replied, thinking that I could do with some divine intervention. Let’s start with the letter A. ‘A is for Allah' he said.

He opened the great book and warned me that one should never mention the supreme creator by name. So we hummed the letter ‘A’ for about 125 miles as we headed west on our silver bird. It was only several years later while researching the recording history of Yusuf Islam, that I came across a song recorded by the artist, called – believe it or not- ‘A is for Allah’. It’s part of a monumental children’s work with the same title - quite rare – and released a year after we met. I hope to this day that I -in some small way - helped take the song forward and contributed to its creation in this wild world in which we live.

My traveling companion had a beautiful voice. We talked of the Indian countryside and the goodness of its people, I told him about seeing the sunrise over the ganges and Tiger Mountain. He smiled and nodded. He had been there. ‘Yes, indeed it’s all beautiful’, he would say. And then the focus was on him. I asked him questions of growing up in London as a young man and New York in the 1970’s. Yet, I never could grasp his name. The Cat Stevens who sold 50 million albums and wrote ‘Peace Train’ and ‘The Wind’ was a simple traveling man by the name of Islam talking of England on a plane with a complete foreigner.

‘Would I know any albums of yours ?’ I asked. ‘Probably’ he replied, ‘I played folk music’. ‘If I looked for your music in a record store, what should I look for? I asked. ‘Yusuf Islam’, came he reply. It didn’t ring a bell. I had never heard of a pop star by that name. I knew of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Bee Gees and Clapton. But I had never of Islam.

Yet another interesting fragment of information about his former life surfaced as I realized that our eight hours were passing us by. ‘I lived in New York and was very close with Andy’ he said. Andy - I presumed was - Andy Warhol. ‘I used to go to these crazy parties with the Velvet underground’, he continued in remembrance of things past. ‘I did a lot of drugs. LSD’. ‘I drank a lot. There were many women’. ‘I was what you call successful’. I envied his story more than his success. ’But it was all an illusion’, he confessed.

‘It was while I was away from New York that I found a meaning to life’ he continued. I understood the feeling. ‘It happened one night. I was in an accident. I had been drinking a lot and doing drugs. I almost got killed and at the moment of coming face to face with my death, this beautiful word flashed before my eyes’. ‘It had golden letters’.

The answer for Stevens was in the word he saw. ‘The word that flashed before my eyes was written in a strange language’, he said. ‘I had never seen the word before. But when I awoke I realized that what it represented was the word for the unmentionable one’. ‘I decided then to give my life to him. G-D. The letter ‘A’. The unmentionable one. He became a Muslim.

His story moved me to tears. His words and the way he told it, were so impactful, that it didn’t matter anymore who this messenger was – or by what name he went. It was all in his message. It was about peace and humanity. He took an interest me and my view of Christianity and my mind-bending encounters with sacred cows. I was feeling better with Islam by my side. And Islam was a special man, a deeply spiritual individual, who found that conversing about G-d, the Canadian winters and India was more meaningful than the stories of his former life hanging-out with Andy, the creator of ‘pop art' or his gold records.

‘Remember’ - he said -‘it doesn’t matter to whom you pray’. The important thing in life is to believe. I agreed and we had become friends, heading west on the same flight path. ‘Jesus, Mohammed and Buddah are all sons of God’. It was during my own moment of personal despair – that I can truthfully say - Islam was there.

It was many years later, that I saw my traveling companion again. Almost a decade after we stepped out of the plane in Amman and shook hands and said our goodbyes under the midday sun in Jordan, I was in the frenzy of the post 9/11 story working as the Photo Editor for El Tiempo, Colombia’s national newspaper. I had been sorting through hundreds of photos which arrived every day on the wire services, when all of a sudden, AP posted pictures of a tall, well groomed man with a beard, standing in the middle of a frenzy of paparazzi at New York’s JFK international airport. The byline read something like ‘ …the artist known as Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam, has been barred from entering the U.S on security grounds….’. I grabbed the computer screen and pulled it closer. I recognized him immediately. Cat was Islam, and my Islam was Cat.

I broke my silence with a quiet chuckle. I had my own personal story to tell of the man President Bush sees as a world threat. This same man had taken me to the edge of my faith and back, and I was still alive. Islam’s only ‘threat’ is that he is a symbol of hope and an unassuming titan of the music world. The man who strikes a conversation with you in Economy class, and not a match. Even though Islam has personally condemned the attacks of the Twin Towers, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this man of peace was a persona non-grata in the city that made Warhol, Dylan and above all, Cat Stevens.

British Prime Minster Tony Blair, personally invited Islam back home that night from New York. The pictures poured in. Yusuf, some eight hours later was back home on sacred ground -Heathrow airport - and received a warm welcome from the British people and of course, the paparazzi. I still clutch my UK passport to this day with pride after Tony took a leap of faith in the name of islam.

Now, not a day goes by when he isn’t there. I hear his songs on the radio and watch him receiving humanitarian awards on CNN -such as The Man of Peace prize. Rumour has it, Islam and Bono might be up for the Nobel peace prize. And as he prepares to launch a new album after years of silence this year - In the footsteps of Light- with the proceeds of the single ‘Indian Ocean’, going to the children victims of war and natural disasters, I re-live every second I spent traveling over another body of water – the Arabian sea - with the artist formerly known as Cat.


Anonymous said...

Hello Richard,
Thank you so very much, I have only just read this and you didn't disappoint. What a wonderful story, I have tears in my eyes as I am writing this to you now.
Once again, thank you for posting this unique and wonderful story.
Your friend,
PS. Please forgive me for plaguing you for so long.

Mallory said...

Thank you Richard. What an inspiring story. How surprised you must have been to discover that your travelling companion was none other than Cat Stevens! It is so nice to know that he is such an unassuming man and respects others' religion as much as his own. Thanks again for sharing.


mc said...

Great story, very well told. I enjoyed it very, very much. Congratulations.

regine said...

Thank u Richard to continue the story about Cat-Yusuf.The second part of the story really grab me by my throat and i'm so happy that again everyone can read what a wonderfull person he is.If you see him in the mean time give him are greetings off all his amis over the world.We are looking forward to the new cd he bring out in the fall.Regine

regine said...

Thank u Richard to continue the story about Cat-Yusuf.The second part of the story really grab me by my throat and i'm so happy that again everyone can read what a wonderfull person he is.If you see him in the mean time give him are greetings off all his amis over the world.We are looking forward to the new cd he bring out in the fall.Regine

diddlysmom said...

hi Richard! that story is simply amazing! I was so touched just reading it. thank you for sharing it with all of us!

Vivian said...

Hi Richard, thanks so much for your heartwarming story. It must have come as quite a thrill finding out that you were given spiritual guidence by Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam. I really hope he was of help to you. Thanks again.