Tag Archive | "Rebecca Sanchez"

Sufi Mysticism on the rise in New York City

by Rebecca Sanchez- Iranian Beat Reporter

The first sounds are those of a Persian flute. A voice joins in, with a somber tone, reciting poetry. The sound builds as Sakina, an older woman dressed all in white except for a green veil draped over her head, takes the center of the room. She spreads her arms and slowly begins to spin her body in a counter-clockwise motion. Her gaze is set on her left thumb; her feet remain close together. She is whirling.

Whirling is a ceremonial form of physical meditation performed in the mystical dimension of Islam called Sufism, and its presence in New York City has swelled in recent years. From what meet-up groups call “Sufi Healing Circles,” to whirling workshops and musical poetry gatherings, Sufi events can now be attended on almost any night of the week in a number of venues: college campuses, mosques, community centers, and private apartments. There are even forums which send members weekly notifications of gatherings in various locations.

AP Archive– Saturday, Nov. 19, 2011, Sufi Muslim dervishes wear camel fur hats as they stand on the stage as part of a Sema ceremony. (AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

But the growing popularity of Sufism in Western pop culture is engendering controversy about whether the Eastern tradition becomes diluted by its newfound Western influence. Many Sufis are taking on what some see as more performative and less authentically spiritual personas.

On Sunday, September 30th, Sakina taught a whirling workshop at the Dergah al-Farah, a Sufi center at 245 West Broadway, in Tribeca. Sakina, who only uses one name, is a dervish from an order called Shaykha Fariha al-Jerraho. The room where she danced was long and narrow with Persian rugs resting over wooden floors, and the music lightly decorative, quietly filling the room. There were only four participants, but Sakina said the quantity was inconsequential because it would be an important experience for each one of them.

“You come into this place because you have a need, you have a wish,” Sakina said in a hushed voice. “You have what we call a ‘call.’”

None of the participants were Sufis; all were newcomers to the experience looking to explore the meditative tradition in hopes of finding a sense of peace, silence, or focus. According to Sakina, a Spanish-born Flamenco instructor turned Sufi mystic, Sufism is for anyone looking to reconnect with their heart.

“I don’t say one word about a specific path,” she said.  “I completely avoid that, to really embrace every practice. From the more indigenous religions to the more traditional.”

Another woman with one name, Isa, agreed.  Isa, a member of the Light Guidance Center for Sufi Studies, and of the Sufi Order of the West in New Lebanon, N.Y., explained in an interview that interfaith, and interethnic elements are inherent in Sufi culture.

She said this was the intention of Inayat Khan, a Sufi master who brought the faith to Europe in the early part of the 20th Century.

“The Sufis are all about ‘when in Rome’ so when Inayat Khan came to Europe he created prayers and services in European languages and traditions that Christians and Jews would feel comfortable reciting and attending,” Isa said.

However, Amir Vahab, a composer and vocalist of Sufi and folk music, said in an interview that Sufis must be careful about how the practice is integrated into pop culture. He is concerned that the popularization has led to a reduction of this ancient Eastern tradition, because, in his view, it is not being studied, understood, and practiced properly. There are still many “real” Sufis, but popularity has brought many imposters looking to make what they can of the growing trend as well.

“I’m just waiting for downtown shoe boutiques to come out with Sufi heels and McDonald’s to make Sufi burgers,” he joked.

In many cases, Vahab explained, the manner in which the tradition is transformed, and often diluted, is problematic for two main reasons: (1) the practitioner is too concerned with the performance of the assumed Sufi identity — that is, the need to look like a Sufi, and (2) there is a danger of misunderstanding of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, whose work plays a central role in Sufism.

The scene from Sakina’s whirling workshop is now a common one in New York City, admired among wanderers of all walks—faithless and faithful. But Vahab observes that, in many cases, new practitioners like Sakina are too caught up with wearing white woolen clothes, hats, or special shoes, changing their Western names to Eastern ones, in an effort to stand out and seem more authentic.

“A lot of this showmanship is to make themselves more convincing, so they even change their names to Islamic names, “ he said with a laugh. “A true Sufi doesn’t care what your name is. A true Sufi cares about your soul—who lives in that body.”

Vahab, who could not be picked out of a crowd as a Sufi wore a clean t-shirt, jeans, and white cotton socks between his feet and the Persian rug beneath them. True Sufis do exist in New York City, he said, but you wouldn’t know them from their dress. They don’t need to be packaged in any specific way—like the hundreds of fortune tellers in New York City who play the role of the fortune teller better than they actually practice it.

As for the poetry of Rumi, there are so many flaws in many of the translations that they are better considered interpretations, Vahab said. According to Vahab and many academics, the reason for the inaccuracies is a lack of mastery and understanding of the necessary realms of the Persian language, history, and the Qur’an itself.

Literature and poetry are both central elements in Iranian tradition and culture. It is in Sufism that these elements converge with religion and identity, so one cannot be understood without the other.

“By diluting Sufi mysticism in this way,” Vahab insisted “we are reducing it to the earthly world.”

Most recently, Vahab’s ensemble performed for the Iranian Students Association at Columbia University. The event, called  “A Rumi Night of Poetry,” was held on Friday, October 5th.  Such performances, Vahab says these performances are an effort to open people’s hearts, although he does not think it helps to reestablish this tradition in its rightful form. Salomeh Salari, president of the association, said that Vahab is a frequent visitor contributing to the association’s mission, which is to promote Iranian culture and bring awareness of traditions to the community.

“We strive to bridge cultural gaps with each of our events, reaching out to any and all guests who are interested,” Salari said.

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Ethnic America Goes to the Polls

Reporters from the New York Torch visited polling places in the New York City and Jersey City area to ask first-time voters from ethnic communities about their experiences, opinions and hopes for America.

Click on the pictures to know their stories.

Reporting by Mea Ashley, Yvonne Bang, Magdalene Castro, William Denselow, Shaukat Hamdani, Colleen McKown, Michael Orr, MaryAlice Parks, Nia Phillips, Griselda Ramirez, Rebecca Sanchez and Charlotte Stafford.
Edited by Jay Devineni, Lorelai Germain, Stephen Jiwanmall, Ntshepeng Motema and Christina Thorne.
Complied by Dhiya Kuriakose.

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Voter Potraits – Jersey City

The New York Torch spoke to voters exiting the New Jersey City University’s John J. Moore Athletics and Fitness Center, which had been transformed into a local polling center.

Chandra Berry (Left) celebrated her 20th birthday by going to the polls with her friend Tawannda Hill, 21 (second from left). Both women, who voted for the first time on Tuesday, said that they were raised in homes where voting was very highly valued.

Born in Egypt, Monir Khilla, 24, attained citizenship in April of 2009 and was excited to participate in his first presidential election.

Bishop Carl Williams, 71, has voted in every presidential election since he became eligible as a young man in Jersey City. The decisive issue in casting his vote, he said, was healthcare.

Obama supporter, Aboubacar Diawara, 18, stood outside of the building, where there was a mock ballot posted on the wall, and showed a friend how easy it was. The friend, who like Aboubacar is from Senegal , is not yet eligible to vote.

Yanazia Yates, 19 (left) and Tiara Abraham, 19, said that healthcare and education were their top priorities in considering who to vote for.

Neighbors and friends for many years, John Oshado, 81 (left) and James Gaynor, 78, walked to the polling center together from their homes just a few blocks away.

James Gaynor, 78

John Oshado, 81

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Long Lines and Missing Booths: Polling Center Challenges in Jersey City

Rebecca Sanchez~

Lines of waiting voters snaked through P.S. 3, the Frank R. Conwell School in  Jersey City on Tuesday,  one of the  few polling centers in Jersey City that was not relocated in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Volunteers and City officials scrambled  to get people through  with just four voting booths “two less than they were supposed to have” and helped  Spanish speaking citizens to understand their ballots. Hudson County’s population is 42% Hispanic, consisting mostly of Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans.

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Persian Rug Industry Changing, Sanctions Not Only Cause

by Rebecca Sanchez, Iranian Beat Reporter —

In the last decade, the Persian rug industry in New York has taken a severe hit, but rug company owners say the tightening U.S.-lead sanctions against Iran are only partly to blame. The struggling economy, a still massive inventory, and trends moving away from the traditional designs are the chief causes.

Darioush Yaraghi, regional manager of the rug and furniture giant Safavieh, says the local market has been dry for about 13 years, but not necessarily because of the sanctions.

“Whenever there is an economic boom, the rugs become more popular, and the last boom was with the dotcom bubble burst in the 1990s,” Yaraghi said.

In the 30 years since its inception, his family’s company has grown to distribute products across all 50 states, Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia.

Safavieh used to buy direct container rugs, which included massive quantities of handmade Persian rugs—more rugs than could be sold in a short period of time. Now, while they can no longer import, their inventory spans across 2.5 million square feet of warehouse storage space in Long Island.

A portion of Safavieh’s Persian Rug inventory on the second floor of their Broadway and West 20th Street location in Manhattan.

Similarly, Rodney Hakim, vice president of the Persian Gallery of New York, which has one of the largest inventories in the United States, says that his company’s stock was not recently imported.

“The rugs we deal in are antiques,“ Hakim said,  “and were exported from Iran roughly a century ago, so their current sale in the U.S. and Europe has no bearing at all on present day Iran’s economy.”

According to Yaraghi, the massive remaining inventory is also due, in part, to Persian rugs’ costly nature and to fluctuating trends in home décor. He says that, while the Persian rug remains a sort of status symbol for many who can afford it, the majority of consumers’ taste has shifted away from the classical look of the Persian rug and more toward plain, modern designs that are less expensive. Where Safavieh was largely built on its Persian rugs, today’s international company finds the rugs making up only about .75% of sales.

Still, for the few who can afford such flooring luxury, Yaraghi says, if anything, Western sanctions have made the rugs more appealing.

“They still have a beauty that you can’t compare with anything else,” he said. “The embargo is actually increasing rarity. It’s sort of becoming a Cuban cigar thing. There’s nothing wrong with a Dominican [cigar], but because you can’t have a Cuban, you want it more.”

This elevation in desire also changes the kind of customer that makes such an expensive purchase. Like the Cuban cigar, the Persian rug becomes not just a financial status symbol, but a cultural one as well.

Kevin Karagulian, a 15 year-long manager of one of Safavieh’s retailers, located on Broadway and West 20tth Street in Manhattan, says that these days the typical Persian rug shopper is not simply a wealthy passerby.

“The people who are buying these are aware of the detail and durability, and they buy them for the cultural significance,” he said.

But Koorosh Yaraghi, another member of the Yaraghi family and CEO of the Internet rug retailer, Rugs USA, pointed out that the prices of rugs have remained relatively flat.

“For the most part there is so much inventory of Persian rugs in the USA that the prices have not increased by much if any,” he said.

Store manager Kevin Karagulian points to the price tag on one of the company’s vintage Persian rugs.

On a global scale, Yaraghi says the trend shifts have made the embargo somewhat ineffective. Between the still plentiful assortments of rugs already in the States, a decline in American consumer interest, and the current state of the U.S. economy, Iran has found a larger market in the East—in places like Japan and Korea. He says the sanctions have also contributed to a kind of Persian rug black-market, whereby Iranian rugs are transported to Pakistan, re-labeled as “Made in Pakistan,” and then can be smuggled into forbidden countries.

“People do find ways to bring them into the country, this way or through Canada,” Yaraghi said. “But we don’t necessarily do that because we choose to go with the consumer trends.”

According to Iran’s Mehr news agency, Tehran exported approximately $600 million worth of carpets in the year starting March 2011, after the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which President Obama signed on July 1, 2010, went into effect. The Mehr news agency says the industry expects to see export increases up to $1 billion by the end of the sales year, in March 2013.

While business in Iran seems to continue relatively unscathed, the Oriental Rug Importers Association, based in Secaucus, New Jersey, says that millions of U.S. dollars in revenue loss has been debilitating for Iran’s economy, affecting weavers in rural communities and small cities where carpet weaving is the predominant mode of income. In response to the hardening sanctions, the association released a statement appealing to the U.S. government to exclude Persian rugs from the prohibition on trading goods.

According to Hakim, one way that the sanctions are having an effect on the American Persian rug industry is by way of overseas restoration to antiques. He says that under these sanctions, his company can no longer export the carpets for maintenance.

“The best restoration services are currently offered outside the U.S., and at much better prices than what one would pay for inferior restoration work that is done here,” he said.

With all domestic economic considerations at hand, Yaraghi says he does not think the sanctions will do any considerable damage to the Iranian economy.

“The design will last,” Yaraghi said. “It is a classic that will never fade away. Time won’t wash that away. It is ingrained in our culture and the embargo won’t change that.”

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Afghani national sport celebrated in Queens kabab house

by Rebecca Sanchez, Iranian Beat Reporter —

An ancient game that involves men on horseback beating a goat carcass is making a comeback in Afghanistan, where it is the country’s national sport. Buzkashi even has its admirers in the New York borough of Queens.

Several photos of Buzkashi games line the walls of the Balkh Shish Kabab House.

Two of its enthusiastic promoters are Mohammad Nasim and Abdul Gabbar, brothers who own the Balkh Shish Kabab House on 31st street in Astoria. Their restaurant doubles as a Buzkashi shrine. Woven Afghans and framed photographs line the worn red walls. Abdul Gabbar, the Persian-speaking older brother of Mohammad, releases a hearty laugh when I ask about the impassioned Afghani pastime.

“You know Buzkashi? It is a beautiful game, I will tell you all about Buzkashi,” he says with a thick accent.

Some say Buzkashi is like Polo. Maybe so, if Polo were played with a headless, limbless goat carcass that has been disemboweled, soaked in ice water, and packed with sand. In Buzkashi, the field is set for a war-like match, which is only slightly regulated by a referee and could last for days. There is a circle drawn in chalk on one end, and a flagpole pierced into the earth on the other. There are two teams—each consisting of 25 men, each man on a horse and bearing a whip. The object of the game: steal victory by getting the goat out of the circle, around the pole, and back to the team’s area outlined in chalk. The winning team barbecues the game goat for a celebratory feast.

In the photos that adorn the kabab house, the horses’ hooves provoke helical hazes of dirt and dust. The men extend each appendage in an effort to wrench the goat carcass away from one another, while maintaining form and balance atop their galloping comrades.

The game requires impeccable skill. Extreme speed, strength, and precision can only be attained through years of training under severe conditions—intense heat, cold, fatigue and hunger, the brothers explained. In contrast to other sports, players, known as chapandaz, do not reach their peak until they are in their mid-forties, an age at which most athletes are retiring.

Abdul Gabbar was once a chapandaz, too. He sits with his younger brother, nostalgically recounting the few games he played back in Afghanistan. Although he never played in the major league, he said that his horses did. Abdul Gabbar owned several horses, he recalled, which were named according to the color of their coats, that were ridden by famous athletes. He trained and cared for them, and says he misses watching them play. The games are currently not broadcast internationally, so Mohammad and Abdul Gabbar watch pre-recorded games on DVD for entertainment.

Videos of older Buzkashi games can also be watched on Youtube, and the sport has already made inroads into American pop culture through Hollywood. One scene in “Rambo III” depicts Sylvester Stalone as Rambo, playing in a Buzkashi match with mujahedin, meaning warriors of God. Buzkashi scenes can also be seen in a 1971 film called “The Horsemen,” starring Omar Sharif.

While the chapandaz represents a fierce symbol of the warrior in Afghan society, Mohammad says the horses are equally trained, skilled, and essential to the game. He says each horse is coached for five years, and knows how to help its rider.

Abdul Gabbar describes the training of the horses, using the photo behind him.

“They cannot talk but they can learn each individual word that you are saying. They know—even if the rider is making mistakes, the horse will cover the mistakes,” he said.

Abdul Gabbar says that Buzkashi is just as much about the beauty of the horses’ movement, its muscle structure glistening through a healthy, shimmering coat.

“There is an old saying in Afghanistan about Buzkashi. He says that if you know that you have two days of your life to live, you can have one day horse riding, and the second day you can get married,” Mohammad said, translating for Abdul Gabbar who spoke it in his native tongue.

Buzkashi, literally meaning “goat grabbing,” has been played since the time of Genghis Khan. It was deemed immoral and forbidden under the Taliban’s rule but never quite went dormant—it only moved underground.

Tribesmen rode down from the mountains to play on Friday evenings after prayer and drew enormously indiscreet crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of spectators. The Taliban deemed the game immoral, but Mohammad says the people refused to accept that.

“For us, for the Afghani people, the Taliban was not an official group, so we don’t believe in them. We don’t want to just follow what they say. It’s the national game, people love it. We don’t acknowledge them as the restriction of something. If you’re not acceptable your order is never accepted,” he said.

For Afghanis, Buzkashi is not only intended for pleasure. It is intrinsically woven into national pride and the enduring warrior spirit. Athletes are men of battle—the horses are intelligent, courageous beasts.

When the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forced the Taliban out of power in 2001 following the events of 9/11, the game was formally resuscitated and pronounced the national sport of Afghanistan.

Although there is currently still no way to follow the winter sport from the United States, the possibility of one day seeing it in the Olympic Games gives Mohammad and Abdul Gabbar hopes of reconnecting with it soon.

When asked if he missed watching the games and participating in the celebratory feast, Abdul Gabbar expelled a very serious “yes”—first in Persian, then in English.

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Iranian and Syrian-Americans Protest outside United Nations

by Rebecca Sanchez, Iranian Beat Reporter —

Wednesday, 26 September 2012– Americans of Iranian and Syrian descent protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly outside of the UN.


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