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The Museum of Lago Atitlan 9 March 2009

Posted by ANNA in ANNA, Culture, History, Spirituality, Travel.

A male cardinal in March; a flash of red against snow. He jumps up the branches of the oak tree wearing a black mask over his eyes. He is crimson from his crest to the tip of his tail; one is almost glad, seeing him, for the bareness of the season. Were there leaves on the trees or sun in the sky, he might not seem as bright. I throw burnt popcorn from the second floor porch. He fights sparrows for the seeds.

I trace the shape of the minor chords up and down my knees. My hand makes a small round shape, gloves curled, imagining keys. It is a habit of thinking; in the familiarity of the scales from C up an octave to C, I find familiarity upon which to daydream. I have learned enough of my religion to feel at ease with submission and belief. Islam and iman, the first two i-words, have meanings which are clear to me. One can list their requirements on two hands, and fulfilling them, feel complete. But what of the third i-word, what of ihsan? It appears in the dictionary under husn: beauty, perfection, excellence. Ihsan is a derivative verbal form meaning the enacting of these. To do what is beautiful, to do what is perfect, to do what is excellent; what do these mean? Each time I consider these questions, I recall the same hadith.

Narrated Omar bin Al-Khattab:

One day while we were sitting with the messenger of Allah there appeared before us a man whose clothes were exceedingly white and whose hair was exceedingly black; no signs of journeying were to be seen on him and none of us knew him. He walked up and sat down by the Prophet. Resting his knees against the Prophet’s and placing the palms of his hands on the Prophet’s thighs, he said, “O Muhammad, tell me about Islam”.

The messenger of Allah said, “Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, to perform the prayers, to pay the zakat, to fast in Ramadan, and to make the pilgrimage to the House if you are able to do so.” The man said,”You have spoken rightly”. Watching, we were amazed.

Next, the inquirer said, “Then tell me about iman.” The Prophet said, “It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof.” The man said, “You have spoken rightly. Then tell me about ihsan.”

The Prophet answered, “Ihsan is that you worship Allah as if you are seeing Him, for though you don’t see Him, He, verily, sees you.”

The man said, “Then tell me about the Hour”. The Prophet replied: “The one questioned about it knows no better than the questioner.” The questioner said: “Then tell me about its signs.” The Prophet answered him, saying, “That the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress and that you will see the barefooted, naked, destitute herdsmen competing in constructing lofty buildings.”

Then the man went on his way, and I stayed for a long time. The Prophet said to me, “O Omar, do you know who the questioner was?” I said “Allah and His messenger know best”. The Prophet replied, “He was the Angel Gabriel, who came to you to teach you your religion.”

Alhamdulillah, I think with my lips, to worship Allah as if by sight. My heart tries to settle on this. In salah, in fasting, in dhikr and dua, I can be mindful of God. Still, the more I think of the Prophet’s advice, the less certain I feel. Who has seen Allah, and indeed, what does seeing Him mean? Prophet Muhammad, on the Mi’raj, witnessed signs of divine majesty. The odors of Paradise, the stretching lote tree, the angels who carry the throne; and yet, so far as I have learned, he did not see Allah.

All of my thinking dries me out. On the arm of my frozen chair is a glass of tonic water clouded with lime. Trickled slowly down my throat, it is bitter and sour and sweet. I can taste everything in its bouquet except for the salt of the sea. To taste could be to worship Allah, at least to note that one is living. I wonder if all senses are equal in worship. Is seeing Allah fundamentally different from hearing, feeling, smelling? Is ihsan also to worship Allah as if you can smell the trees in jannah, the hellfire smoking?

I cheat the birds of a handful of popcorn by feeding it to myself. The feeling of filling calms me. I return to questions of seeing. There is a story in the Qur’an of a time when Prophet Musa asked Allah if he might see Him. Allah told Musa, alayhi salam, that such was an impossibility.

“By no means canst thou see Me directly; But look upon the mount; if it abide in its place, then shalt thou see Me.” (7:143)

When Allah revealed His majesty to the mountain, it was devastated. In an instant, it crumbled to dust. The Prophet Musa himself swooned, and repented upon waking. The flesh on the back of my neck prickles hot. If neither a mountain nor a Prophet can withstand the sight of his Lord, then how shall my heart come to see?

The birds are joined by a female jay. She is greyer than her bluecoat mate, who sometimes hops through our trees. What she lacks in color she makes up for in voracity. A squabble erupts: I throw a handful of seeds at the snow. They are invisible among the drifts but for tiny hulls burned black. I pretend they are particles of mountain dust, lost among the clouds. My jay snaps them into her beak; for a moment she seems a terribly large thing, an angel carrying a throne with hundreds of miles between her wings.

I wonder if it is enough to be amazed by Allah’s signs. Consider the cardinal, red against snow. Its vibrance speaks of eternity. If it is a matter of seeing, in the world around you, the infinity of signs, then perhaps I am ready to try to be one of the muhsineen.

A corner of the sky darkens; above it, two blue stars. I am reminded of the way the snow sprinkles ever so lightly in a column in the morning, drifting from the branches of the pine tree, suspended in light over the road. Is it possible that angels wait, there at the edges of the trees? Could I learn from them awareness of Allah, such that I might worship as if I saw Him? Whom have you known, I ask myself, whose awareness is so keen?

Ten years melt away while I wonder, to Lago Atitlan. It is easy to remember Allah, I suppose, in heavenly abodes. Yet the woman who sticks in my heart just now did not live in one of these.

She manned the museum all by herself, on the end of a street built of clay (volcanic clay, obsidian black, which runs in the rain like ink.) Alison and I walked past the hospital and morgue, past a storefront of flowers for dying. Why does Guatemala have so much loss? I turned to Alison, to remark on this, but my voice was drowned out by police. A rush of vehicles, machine gun green, squabbled along past us like geese. We pulled ourselves up onto a stone to wait. To ask where they might be going would be to acknowledge the lake’s history. It doesn’t seem right, Alison’s eyes said, that the town’s own people have dwindled in number, while visitors like us are free.

Five more minutes we pressed on, until we reached the end of things. One building, standing sideways at the edge of the street, leaked smoke from its chimney. Museo, said a sign painted in black, de Lago Atitlan. For a moment the anxiety of encountering a new space in a foreign country overwhelmed our feet. No one answered our quietest knocks, and we would have turned to leave.

Then a rustle inside, and a woman opened the door, to the sound of a bell wrapped in wool. Esta abierto? Alison asked. Can we come inside and see? The woman smiled through wire-capped teeth. Of course. Enter, please.

I have never before nor ever again smelled anything so terribly sweet. A small set of rooms, whitewashed inside, were lit by a fireplace. In one room, a few photographs of Santiago’s demon. A barbarous thing made of papier mache, offerings are made to it by its servants of cigars, money and drink. In another room, two or three small dolls, fashioned as Christian saints. The Mayans living around the lake clothe them in wool; bright blue and green, sunset orange and pink.

In the last room, a flute, a loom, a fireplace; near the fire, the woman stood waiting. Where is the museum, I asked Alison in English. Here there is nothing written down, no captions. No record of the massacres, nor exhibits of the dancing. What kind of museum is so very empty, and why does the air smell so sweet?

The woman stepped forward, copal in hand, and began to explain. Thanks be to God, she began, and peace to His children on earth. There is nothing, or almost nothing, here for you to see. I am the museum. I answer questions. I am the town’s memory.

For an hour she told the two of us of her community’s history. Some of them worship the demon, she explained. Their losses have been so great that they suppose evil owns the victory. Others living on the volcano’s edge adorn dolls and worship these.

After an hour of braiding corn husks with stories, we readied ourselves to leave. She broke lumps of resin into the palms of our hands. This is our incense, she explained, which we have burned since the early days. Take it with you, and when you are home, remember God. Pray to Him, think of our community.

Later that day, walking back to the lake by the shade of the avocado trees, Alison stopped to look at me. “Back there at the museum, what language was she speaking?”

“Spanish,” I answered without thinking. “It couldn’t have been English. No one speaks English way out here. And we don’t speak Quiche, so…” Alison nodded. “Right. But we don’t speak Spanish well enough to understand all that, do we?” I watched my footsteps fill with rain. Vanity wrestled honesty. “No, not really.”

“So what happened?” Alison asked. “I didn’t have to strain at all to understand her.” Her eyes turned on me. “Did you?” I adjusted my hat against the sun. “Actually, no, I have to agree. “Understanding was perfectly easy.”

Perfectly easy, I repeat to myself, after more than 3000 days. It was perfectly easy because she had ihsan. What she did, she did beautifully. I wonder (it is time for maghrib) how I might emulate her example. I remember if there are any cities whose museum I could be.



1. jahmayo - 3 April 2009


2. Layla - 9 April 2009

I agree. Your writing is amazing.

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