Beautiful music, but Timbuktu: on dialogue and ignorance

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 30, 2013

“These were works that refracted ancient wisdom much as rubies refract sunlight, to use a metaphor from the great Sufi poet Rumi.”

As I’m writing this week’s column, unthinkable news has left me confused and distraught.

By now, our coffee companions are well aware that I try to be a positive force in connecting people and ideas. I thrive on words like those of the Russian writer Dostoevsky, “The world will be saved by beauty.” I try to practice Mother Teresa’s words, “Let’s do something beautiful for God.”

Especially in the area of interreligious dialogue, I try to find common ground among people of longing, listening, loving hearts – people of goodwill committed to spirit and truth; people whose very presence in our lives acts as a gentle breeze to rekindle the sometimes fading embers of our souls.

Last week’s column on an interfaith forum held recently in Cochrane is an example of this.

I’d hoped to carry that positive outlook on life into this week’s column.

In fact, I’d planned on writing about the musical beauty of Allan Bell’s recent composition, “Sage,” for instance.

Allan, often seen in the loft at Cochrane Coffee Traders, is the professor of music at the University of Calgary who was made a Member of the Order of Canada last year for his contribution to the arts.

Just last Saturday, he was further honoured at the U. of C.’s Rozsa Centre when the string, wind and percussion sextet, Eighth Blackbird, performed the world premiere of his composition, “Sage” (its three movements being a celebration of the wild plant that grows “in even the most inhospitable places”).

My wife and I attended that gripping performance. There, for a few minutes, we witnessed seemingly conflicting monologues among the instruments reconciling into dialogue.

In that reconciliation I sensed the other meaning of “sage”: a wise person.

Speaking of a wise person, it was only a month earlier that Allan gave me the small book, On Dialogue, by the late physicist/philosopher, David Bohm.

In view of my emphasis on the importance of listening, Allan thought I’d be interested in Bohm’s thoughts on what respectful communication can be like when, instead of playing argumentative verbal games “against each other,” we enter into dialogue with each other. “In dialogue, everybody wins.”

This reminded Allan and me of the famously quoted line by the late motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia: “Most conversations are just alternating monologues. The question is: is there any real listening going on?”

(Such “real listening” has been a longtime concern also for another of my Cochrane heroes, author David Irvine, who writes: “To communicate you need conversation and dialogue” – not just two people each saying their own thing without reference to what the other hears, understands or feels.)

Allan’s musical works are, of course, about the dialogue implicit in real listening, something I hope my writing and personal lifestyle become more and more about, too.

Yes, these were some of the positive things I wanted us to think about in this week’s column.

But then there’s Timbuktu and news of last week’s burning by Mali religious fanatics of one of the world’s most important libraries of antiquities in their relentless assault on the Sufi understanding of Islam.

The library of 30,000 volumes at the Ahmed Baba Institute contained many culturally and historically priceless manuscripts, some dating back a thousand years. This was a treasure-trove of Sufi knowledge, a literary dialogue of wisdom.

These were works that refracted ancient wisdom much as rubies refract sunlight, to use a metaphor from the great Sufi poet Rumi.

To be sure, such mindless unwillingness to allow “the other” a voice has also reared its ugly head elsewhere in the world. All one needs consider is the burning of Christian churches in Nigeria, as an example.

Then there’s last year’s attempted assassination of Malala, the 15-year-old Pakistani Muslim girl whose only crime was standing up boldly for women’s rights.

All of this leaves me terribly confused and heartsick. And I ask: What can we in our little foothills town do to make sure we ourselves are not infected with this sickness of ignorance and intolerance? What can we do to experience a true dialogue that honours our common humanity?

What can we do to more fully embrace the healing dialogue of real listening?


© 2013 Warren Harbeck

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