Monday, September 29, 2008

School of Mahmoud

Keywords : Care-free-ness, Anxiety, Happines, Abandonment, Humility

Mahmoud was there again. The shoe-shine and repair man by the sidewalk outside the supermarket I frequent. Mahmoud is a name I gave him since I do not know his name and have not had the chance to converse with him in Arabic. Mahmoud is fully bearded, wears a white traditional muslim hat and looks a little emaciated but always calm, unsmiling and unperturbed. I try to greet him silently whenever I'd pass by the supermarket.

I sat on the round planter box next to him and watched as he unwrapped the fabric were he keeps all his tools. One by one he took them out, some extra shoe strings, the glue, the needles, a few coloured threads and pieces of leather. As he sat there waiting for customers, I sat there watching him. He started cutting the square-shaped leather pieces into a more proper shoe shape. I just watched. 15 minutes gone and still no customer. He continued calmly cutting the leather pieces.

I finally discovered by serendipity a little dose of entertainment in this desert place. For the last 6 months, I got so used to vegetating in my room I felt myself slowly getting despondent and low in spirit. I needed a reboot. Last night I decided to take a stroll at the beach, which is a mere 500m away from where I stay. I took a slow walk. I haven't been there since the last time I first came to Jeddah and wondered whether it will look the same. I cut through several empty streets again. This city remains as eerie and surreal to me as before. It has this genuine feel of a ghost town. You wonder where all the 4million population of people has gone to. Occasionally my steps were intercepted by cats suddenly jumping out from the nearby rubbish cans as if on ambush. The wide streets lay useless. In some back lanes you see Somali women lying on the roadside. They are dressed in all black with heads covered. And you notice their eyes trail you as you pass them by. At one street junction, a fully bearded, unkempt man suddenly appeared out of nowhere directly in front of me. The streets were dark and totally empty. Not a single soul or moving car. He was 15 metres away and was quickly advancing toward me. His head was covered with the traditional white and red toup or muslim scarf. Staring directly at me with his wide and bloodshot eyes. I stared back and pretended I wasn't scared and continued my pace. I figured we were heading for collision in 5 seconds if I do not change course.

Numerous thoughts hit my mind. In those split seconds, I grappled to remember the various jet li moves I memorized before and surveyed him from head to foot. Looking for a weak spot. I adjusted my pants and moved my fingers to feel the metallic mechanical pencil I always carry at my pant's side pocket. It's a relief to know it's there tucked neatly, just in case…He didn't leave his eyes off me and I did the same. When he came at arm's length, he said something in Arabic. I didn't understand but his posture told me he's a man asking for help. I gave him the picnic bread I was carrying and he nodded and went off.

Appearance can be deceiving sometimes. Those who look 'ugly' or 'scary' sometimes are the gentlest and kindest souls. People who look like angels are the most dangerous.

I jumped across a low wall to reach the beach amidst the darkness. Nothing new. I washed my hands and face to feel Red Sea breeze. I sat there for about an hour hoping to get some spiritual refreshment. Nothing. I walked back to the city.

Back to the shoe-shine man. Watching Mahmoud is probably the closest I will get here to a renewal and a quieting of the spirit.

Somehow in those slow 15 minutes, I've forgotten all the things that were beginning to clutter up my spirit.

The ear-deafening bombardment of news about the beleaguered banks in Wall Street. Worry over it's potentially devastating repercussions to the world's economy. To Singapore and the Middle East and then later on how it will trickle down to ordinary people like me walking in Main Street. Oh, I worry 15 months ahead. In the space of 15 minutes, Mahmoud taught me how he has mastered the art of abandonment.

Just silently watching him is a refreshing respite from the business of busy-ness and I suppose is a slow but steady antidote to this malady of anxiety. I wasn't the only one watching Mahmoud. There were a few of us. Probably 4 or 5 people sitted there around him. 2 old bearded fellow 'watcher' were probably waiting for a rendezvous with friends.

Other people go to yoga classes or turn on their new age meditation stereos to calm their spirits. I discovered that for me none of these ever works. Lying in your bed with soft music playing -- sounds of natural streams or water or birds chirping is soothing. But they don't provide the true calmness of spirit that one shares when one sits beside someone who lived his life without distractions. I realized I have just enrolled into the school of Mahmoud.

"Doesnt Mahmoud feel anxiety about the absence of shoes to shine?" I talked to myself and imagined if no dirty shoes comes for the night, he might have to stay hungry the next day.

My intuition told me he lives his life 15 minute at a time without agonizing over what the next 15 minutes has to offer. Simple and carefree and trustful abandonment. On the 18th minute, a bangladeshi came to ask for a new shoelace. It was as if he has been sent to come to Mahmoud. Mahmoud took out one from his strings and gave it to the bangladeshi, not even looking at him for an instant. 4 seconds later, the Bangladeshi took out 1 riyal and pass it to Mahmoud.

"Do not worry over what to eat, what to wear or put upon your feet. Look at the birds in the sky. They neither toil nor work. Yet your heavenly father feeds them".

I believe that the spirit of Abandonment is very easy and yet extremely hard to achieve. Yet, learning this 'art' and mastering it seems to spell the difference between genuinely happy souls and outwardly happy souls. Watching Mahmoud has taught me the mathematical formula that one's level of abandonment is proportional to one's level of humility. Humble people acknowledges that they have no control over their destinies. Look at a child. The child knows its own helplessness and so he allows himself to be helped in everything and fully abandons all his cares to his parents. And aren't all children happy? And by the way, if my memory hasn't failed me yet, didn't we lose our care-free-ness when we grew up?

Yes, we all did, but Mahmoud probably lost his and found it back soon. Can i have mine back too please?

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