Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cultural Backwardness?

There is a buzz going around that on a day during the Moharram ceremonies [Shia rituals commemorating the martyrdom of the third imam] in the Ghods district of Tehran, an image of a man appeared on a wall following a rainy day. Since then, scores of pilgrims have been showing up in the neighborhood every day who revere the site as a holy place. Photographs of the scene show a couple hundred people standing in front of the wall, with some touching the image to be “touched” by the divine.

This photograph is being forwarded through cyberspace by emails and is declared to be a sign of Iran’s cultural backwardness. Thousands of people have seen it and thousands more will.

I was thinking about this, i.e. whether this is a sign of cultural backwardness or something else. I recall that last year a similar event took place in London. An image appeared on a wall of a bridge built for passing trains, and it was said it looked like Jesus Christ. The next morning several newspapers, including the Guardian, published a large photograph of the image. I did not see anyone calling this backwardness, cultural or not. From a journalistic perspective, this was an event and it was simply reported as a fact.

I can recount other similar stories. For example, two months ago, in Oregon, the chocolate powder on a cup of cappuccino was said to resemble Jesus Christ. Seven or eight months ago the same figure appeared on a piece of toasted bread. I know the first one was bought for 400 dollars at an auction.

There are plenty of churches all over Europe that are host to hundreds of pilgrims every year. The pilgrims go to church to pray, near a teary eye statue of Christ or a tree leaf that looks like Virgin Mary.

Calling these things “cultural backwardness” does not accomplish anything. Rather, in my opinion, it adds to the problem. It is interesting that some people label the rituals of millions of others as backward. Perhaps they think that they themselves stand on the opposite side. We, however, know of many who think like this but in fact practice the most backward rituals themselves.

I wonder what would happen if we took these rituals away from people, i.e. those who are submerged in the world of one’s and zero’s, with their cell phones and satellites, hidden cameras, cards and codes. Assuming of course that this can be done, although we know that it cannot.

A long time ago a wise teacher of mine once said, “It would be an amazing feat to throw away bad and harmful traditions. But why waste energy on eliminating rituals that do not harm anyone?” When I hear that palm reading, fortune telling, and ghost calling are popular and flourishing in developed Western societies, why do I care about a neighbor who is calmed down and helped by an image on a wall?