On 11 May, a renowned Palestinian journalist was shot and killed while reporting on events in Jenin. The Arab media called her a shaheed (martyr) and a shahid (witness). She was known through her work as a witness of Truth, telling the story as it is, through the lives of the people of Palestine.
On 11 May, I completed a two-month assignment in Poland to report on the situation of refugees who had fled the war in Ukraine; to bear witness to the overall refugee situation there and to document the efforts of the relief organization for which I work, in providing support to people displaced by war.
This month’s theme invited deep reflection and compelled me to ask myself, What does it mean to be an objective witness? In a recent reflection on the theme, Kabir Dede refers to the witnessing of the outer world and the witnessing of ourselves.
Externally, I focus on facts, verify my sources, understand the context and report objectively. If at times I am unable to speak out for specific reasons, I am at least witness to what is there, and when the moment arises I can speak to its truth. Biases may nevertheless occur. I may be influenced by one medium or another and portray what I believe to be true, whereas to others, the narrative may seem quite different. And so I ask, as Beloved Prophet Muhammad did, to be shown the truth as Truth and ask for the blessing of following it, and to be shown falsehood as falsehood and be granted the blessing of avoiding it.
Internally, my heart and mind are at play. How do I remain calm in the urgency of events? How can I perform my professional duty without being affected by what I witness at borders or reception centres? How does my heart remain constant, compassionate, and responsive to the reality on the ground, and portray those affected with dignity and respect? I am asked to bear witness to the condition of humanity in conflict and displacement. How do I react? Am I angry? Disappointed? Do I show it? Does it affect me physically? How? Do I withdraw? Do I become sarcastic and critical? Where do I direct my energy? Do I immerse myself in nature? Do I talk about it? Do I suppress it? Do I detach?
I find it can be easy to get entangled in the workings of the nafs when facing difficult situations, or when narratives of media take over. If I succumb to them, how would I be able to witness the external and internal workings of my being? Through the guidance of my teachers, I learn to focus on the breath, do zhikr and to keep the Divine as a close companion. Through my work, I have learned to look for alternative narratives and be present to them. Apart from factual reporting I try to be a witness to the people themselves. I wonder what they might be going through as they are separated from family members at borders, what it means to the child holding onto the one toy they were able to take with them. I wonder about fathers, brothers and uncles left behind, women travelling long distances, seeking refuge, caring for their children, parents and extended family members. I listen to their stories.
While in Poland, I had the opportunity to visit Blessed Mary, Our Lady of Czestochowa, known as the Black Madonna. What I experienced there was deeply humbling: a devotion and reverence towards Our Lady, individuals and groups kneeling in humility as they approached the altar. Families, youngsters, students, women and men of all ages, journeying from all areas in Poland and the world to visit and pay their respects to her. My visit was on the last day of Ramadan and so I felt within my being and from what I observed an intertwining of traditions and forms of prayer.
Mevlana says, “Witnessing the greatness of God is the beginning of the formal prayer and the greeting of peace is its end” (Fihi ma Fihi, Discourse 3, The Rumi Daybook). As I walked in the grounds of the monastery, entered in and out of its chapels, knelt before Our Lady and as I broke my fast that day, devotion seemed to dissolve all forms of tension arising from the external witnessing of my work; the body and soul of presence and prayer were intermixed.
And yet, I struggle with this month’s theme, for how does one remain an objective witness without judgement when one reads of mass shootings, or cases of abuse, or state coercion, or differential treatment of asylum seekers at borders? How do we as humans mirror qualities we have in one another, which we cannot imagine we hold? How does one remain as much a witness in matters of day-to-day violence as in those of war and conflict? And more so, how do we awaken Al-Shaheed, The Witness, within us?
We learn along the path that darkness and light are prevalent in each of us, that we all hold Moses and Pharaoh within, and that there is a reason for everything that happens, whether we comprehend it or not. We learn to observe without judgement, and we are called to witness those states within us when we are drawn to darkness and when light emerges.
You tell the Truth;
we are learning
in this School of Love
to bear the Truth,
even when it weighs heavy
on our hearts.
["Ash Shahid, The Witness," Ninety-Nine Names of the Beloved by Camille H. A. Helminski]
I pray in my work and everyday life that I am able to take a step back from the seeming chaos, to focus on the breath, to always be present to what I am exposed to, and to learn to navigate those times when I am inclined to react impulsively to what I see in the world.
I pray that I have the courage to look deep within myself, through that astrolabe of being which reflects the qualities and attributes of the Divine.
Just as this metal astrolabe is a mirror of the heavens, the human being . . . is the astrolabe of God. When God makes a person know him/herself, through the astrolabe of that person’s own being, he/she witnesses the manifestation of God and His infinite beauty moment by moment and flash by flash. That beauty is never absent from their ‘mirror’.
[Fihi ma Fihi, Discourse 2, The Rumi Daybook]
I pray that I am able to see Hu everywhere, even in those moments which seem dark and heavy.
I hold the prayer of Beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in my heart:
O my God, fill me with awe of You; in my inner being and outer form. Let me be truthful in contentment and when anger arises. Give me modesty in poverty and in wealth. Give me everlasting ease. Let my peace of mind be uninterrupted. Make me content with Your judgement. Grant me goodness after death. Give me the pleasure of gazing upon Your Face. Make me long to meet You in every moment. Do not let affliction harm me and do not let my trials misguide me.
~ Amira is a wanderer and seeker on the Mevlevi Path. She finds refuge in people’s life experiences.