I will begin this blog with a disclaimer: This is NOT a political commentary on the State of Israel by any means.
Israel is a very beautiful country and this is one thing that I never heard said about Israel until after my trip when I stumbled on a page “Israel is Beautiful” on Facebook. But like someone responded, “Is it any more beautiful than the rest of the middle east or the whole of the Mediterranean coast for that matter?” and another response was ‘my mother in law visited there a few years ago and she didn’t think it was all that.” Well, for many years now, I have learnt not to listen to just the words being spoken but to understand what is doing the speaking. And in these situations what was speaking didn’t take anything away from me about the beauty of Israel.
My son said to his sister, “Mom is Jewish now, she came back from Israel and now decorates the house with mezuzah and menorah,” he left the other half out and that is “Mom is probably Arabic too because there are also hamsa by the doors to keep away the evil eye, figurines of a camel and Aladdin lamp on the mantel and a Bedouin Arab quilt hanging on the wall, not to speak of lots of Arabic jewelry and scarves bought from the souks in Jerusalem.”
A few weeks after I returned from my one week trip to Israel, I had this dream:
I am driving by in a landscape that is unmistakably Michigan and I saw a big road sign pointing to Migdal, so I followed the road and I arrived at Migdal, and it isn’t just a namesake of the Migdal—the birth place of Mary Magdalene that is in the Galilee area in Israel, but it is the very Migdal that is in Israel that is now in Michigan in the USA, and in the manners of dreams, it was conveyed to me that the USA has stolen this real Migdal from Israel. I was furiously indignant, and had a lot of un-publishable words to say about it in my dream. On waking, the meanings of the dream are totally personal to me, and my psychology. And Migdal was returned to her rightful place in Israel.
Why did the dream use Migdal and not the Sea of Galilee or River Jordan or Jerusalem? It has to do with the figure of Mary Magdalene and what I personally think of her and what she means to me in my psyche, which is totally different from the New Testament portrayal of her. For me, she is a symbol of femininity, humility, humanness, sexuality and absolute love and devotion. And this, is my understanding of religion, it is a very personal thing and not a thing that can be transmuted to another person in the ways that we try to do so.
I was raised on the Bible and I love the stories of the Bible especially the stories of the Old Testament because everything about humanity is there, and I mean everything. And I still remember back to Sunday school and elementary school, listening to these stories used to make me so happy as I would disappear into them, and the landscapes and be there with Eve talking to the snake in the Garden of Eden, to Joseph and his brothers and his coat of many colors. I was with the Israelites in Egypt and on their 40 year trek. I developed a crush on Joshua at the age of 5 as he conquered Canaan and the wall of Jericho came crashing down, and his name is still one of my favorite names of the Bible.
I was there when puny David fell the giant Goliath and for a little girl it did give me a lot of hope. What about Ruth and her unwavering love for her mother in law? What to make of Job and his trials? I wept many tears for him, and the wisdom of King Solomon; and like Bisi, one of my travel companions repeatedly pointed out the many times that we were at the spice markets—Queen Esther being bathed in spices for a year. And I can go on and on.
Octavio Paz said, “When history wakes, image becomes deed, the poem is achieved: poetry goes into action.”
What he is talking about is that history is very much alive today as the events were when they were taking place hundreds or thousands of years ago, the only difference is that the person apprehending the history based on her own unique mind makes of the history what she is going to make of it. This means that history is not just an objective collection of facts and data, but it is history because there were some people’s tears and blood in the making of it, that is, there are emotions involved. And that is why as in popular dictum, a cigar is not just a cigar—what is the history of cigars for this one individual, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar when all of us try to make one common meaning of it.
I adopted a tree on Northwestern highway in Farmington Hills and I call it ‘My Tree,’ I try to drive by it as often as I can so I can see My Tree. And so for me, it carries a lot of meanings because when I met it 13 years ago, the ground beneath my feet was very shaky, and its form, sturdiness, standing firm, with lots of branches coming out of it at every angle to form a composite of something in unity, related and very much together was very comforting to me and there it stood unwavering year in and year out and in every season. It is My Tree in my history but it is a tree that many people don’t see at all because it disappears into the background of a beautiful Midwestern town’s landscape.
The story of the Bible is a myth of the people who live in this region and even though I wasn’t born in that region and none of my ancestors came from that region, my psyche was wired in its formative years on the myth of this region as recorded in the Bible, thanks to the Christian missionaries who were part of the colonization of the part of the world that was to become southern Nigeria and the Nigerian psyche, and I mean the Nigerian psyche (even Muslim, as the myth of the Koran is from this very region as well, because the northern part of Nigeria was colonized via the Sahara desert by the Islamic jihadist, in a religious and economic colonization before the British came by boat through the Atlantic Ocean) was formatted on this mythology.
And as such you can say that I am at the least bi-mythic, because side by side with the Christian upbringing that I received on Sundays in church and at the missionary schools that I attended, were also the imbibing of the Yoruba myth that did not require any formal instructions. Ogun, Sango, Oya, Yemoja and the other hundreds of gods and goddesses in the Yoruba pantheon (comparable to the Greek mythology in its composition and comprehension) were in the air that I breathed, but tragically, the accent on them were not one of love or comfort like the ones in the Bible even as my crush Joshua was conquering Canaan and killing and enslaving the inhabitants.
The mythic stories of the Bible were depicted as holy and the myths of my ancestors were depicted evil, and as such, you call on the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob when you need comforting and help, and you call on Ogun, or Sango when you wish an un-imaginable calamity on your enemy.
Myths help the psyche with symbol formations, and the more we are able to form symbols, the healthier we become and vice versa, the less able to form symbols, the more symptoms we have because symptoms are actually degraded symbols. And so the myth of the Bible were health promoting as symbols and the myth of the Yorubas are symptoms forming and thus pathologizing because of their degradation, should I ask what that has done to our self esteem?
What we, Yorubas have lost in the process as an example, the valuable lesson that the myth of Ogun could have enriched us with and had we not lost that, we might not be a people who breed dictators. Here is the story.
Ogun, the god of war and of iron—the founding father of technology as we understand it, was a fierce warrior who did not take any prisoner. He also loved his palm wine with no apologies. So, there was this group of people that were continuously being harassed by their neighbors who would wage wars on them, capture and enslave them. The rest of the people asked Ogun for his help and he led their army into battle against the enemies and conquered them; and many more enemies like that. They were so relieved and grateful that they begged him to become their king, but Ogun knew his limitation.
He knew that he was a warrior and not a king and his job was defending the borders and not sitting on a throne in the center of the town, but the people will not take his no for an answer. They begged and appealed and pleaded and finally wore him down and against his innate nature, he became their king.
And then came a new wave of enemies to conquer, and Ogun led his army into a defensive war and vanquished all of them, but then drunk from the triumph of war plus/minus palm wine, he turned on his men and perceiving them to be enemies, vanquished them as well.
Had we not degraded this wonderful symbol into symptom in Nigeria, perhaps we wouldn’t have had so many years of military dictatorship as soldiers are built for pillaging and not for the center of a city and definitely not for the throne. But sadly, the only way that we nod at Ogun now is for most drivers to try to kill any dog that they see trying to cross the road, as dogs are Ogun’s animals.
And so there was a split in my psyche, there was no continuity of blessings running from my ancestors of just 200 years ago to me today (and we are all surprised at the state of Nigeria?) whereas for an average inhabitant of Israel, be they Jewish, or Muslim, they have that continuity and they are not split by a foreign mythology.
Yes, there is a tone of envy there on my part, but all is not lost, I am bi-mythic or even tri-mythic and I believe that it has enriched my psyche more, and this is because I have taken the time to educate myself on the mythology of my ancestors and as such I now have their blessings, and so for me, Sango, the god of thunder and lightning doesn’t just send his wrath to destroy people but in the wake of his sky splitting activities come life giving rains. Yemoja, as her river flows brings fructification to the soil and blessings to the wombs of women. Oya for me is not a witch to cower before but she is the mother of all, the veritable mate of Sango and a woman to be respected at all time, as every woman and everything that is feminine in us is to be respected.
And so when I had the good fortune of visiting Israel on the invitation of a dear friend who took the time to drive us around the country, I felt as if I had stepped into history and my imagination of when I was a child did not lie to me, I saw where the shepherds tended their sheep and goats at that time and they are still tending them, just that the shepherd boys are nomadic Bedouin Arab today. The Sea of Galilee is as misty as I had visualized it and after staring at it for a while, I could see Jesus walking on it.
“I’ll lift up my eyes onto the hills,
From whence does my help come….”
Is a prayer that when I now say it, I feel it more because I have seen those hills, and they are numinous and awe inspiring.
The wall around the city of Jerusalem is still there as well as the seven gates into the city. We spent two nights at a hotel right across from King David’s tower. We walked on the Via Dolorosa in the very manner that Jesus walked with his heavy cross on it to Golgotha, it was a market then and it is still that same busy market today.
We visited Masada, the retreat of the unpopular King Herod of the time of the birth of Jesus and saw the mountains of his ancestors—the Moabites.
River Jordan is still there. Mary’s well, where she used to fetch water is still there in Nazareth.
There were date palms, and olive grooves all over the place and I made it a point to find a fig tree.
So in the end, I am lucky that the British colonized Nigeria and brought their religion with them, because it has enriched my psyche and I have been blessed by the ancestors in the Bible, as I am being blessed by my own ancestors.
At the end of the trip, I was very happy, and I promised to return at a future date and take my children with me. I tried to put what I felt into words, and it was a struggle. To my Nigerian friend, I asked them to remember how it was when the pilgrims to Mecca and Medina returned home after the Haj. They used to be happy, content, have this peaceful look about them, and some of them that I knew changed for the better for they have been reborn.
To my American friends, I said that it was a feeling of things coming together for me, when before they have been scattered all over the place, it was a feeling of re-gathering them into a new unity, and incidentally this is the meaning of the word, religion, relig-ios, to come back together. And it is the grounding that My Tree on Northwestern highway gave me that time 13 years ago, and for which I still love till today.
I have another mythic home to visit, and that is Greece for the western education that I have received all of my life has its foundation in the mythology of the Greeks.
I’ll conclude with this poem:
Your Own Myth-- Jelaluddin Rumi
Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who comes to a spring thirsty, and sees the moon reflected in it?
Who like Jacob, blind with grief and age, smells the shirt of his lost son
and can see again?
Who lets a bucket down and brings up a flowing prophet?
Or like Moses goes for fire and finds what burns inside the sunrise?
Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies, and opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there is a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet and leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.
Now there’s a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins.
Suddenly he’s wealthy.
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others.
Unfold you own myth, without complicated explanations,
so everyone will understand the passage
We have opened you.
Start walking towards Shams. Your leg will get heavy and tired.
Then comes a moment of feeling the wings you’ve grown,