On the anniversary of my beloved Baba’s passing, my husband and I are standing together, as the halva – a common Middle Eastern confection made of flour and sugar – is being stirred in a pan. During the time the halva is being prepared, we recite passages of prayer and loving words as a way of honoring the departed one in the spirit world. Once the halva is ready, we will decorate it, place it on various plates, and offer it to our neighbors, family members, and sometimes the local mosque. This is an offering that I take much comfort and joy in.
Throughout the day, we will reflect on my father’s life. Later that evening, we will light candles for him and settle into a feeling of deep contentment and connection with him. And there I will whisper, “I love you, Baba… I love you.”
I have been raised with such traditions in the Middle East. I have seen the community come together many times during a given year to celebrate and honor the deceased by reciting prayers and chanting, and by recalling various memories and stories of the beloved departed one. This honoring of the dead brings the community closer together, and also makes the living feel more connected to the spirit world.
This year, as I was reciting a Fatehah (a prayer from the Koran for the deceased), a question appeared in my head: Who will make my halva?
I am mainly the one amongst my family and friends to carry these traditions, and I have always been asked to pray for others, light candles, and carry out not only the traditions of my culture, but those I have also developed as a spiritual teacher. However, in a country where most do not pause, or carry such beliefs or customs, this question about my own halva led me to further questions: Who will carry my stories? Who will be there to hold my hand when I get old? Who will “be my cane when I cannot walk?”
In today’s society, particularly in the western world, there are not many traditions that support creating a sacred space of honoring each other. Life in most places is fast and hectic, and many avoid rubbing arms or making eye contact, let alone coming together to honor a deceased loved one annually. And yet, is there anything more sacred or beautiful as taking the time to come together as a community and fill our hearts with this deep, loving embrace?
I see the isolation that has set in the daily lives of so many. The lack of community support has left us impoverished of the richness we could otherwise experience. This “communal poverty” has led us deeper into this isolation, which creates more depression and anxiety in our society. An emergency doctor expressed to me that many patients have no one to put down on their contact list when they go to the hospital. Many friends express to me that their children, once grown up, do not give them attention, and are not really present in their life. And those who do not have families may feel they have no support system at all. Even those with huge social circles may feel they are lacking the bonding of community. Simply put, we are in a crisis; “community” is no longer a part of our daily life.
As I visit the Middle East each year, I think of my many students there who would not hesitate to take care of me when I’m older, and carry on these sacred traditions when I’m gone. It is ingrained in the culture – in the society – and they know that it is precious and needs to be treasured. After all, we all need one another. We all need to be loved and cared for, and the most sacred gift we can give is to honor each other and come together as a community. This will nourish our being and make our lives so much richer. We are not just a group of individuals: we are a family of people.
As I have adopted so many beautiful traditions and ideologies from the West in the past three decades, I wish to carry and bring forth this from the East; the humanization of our daily life. And soon, as I will be stirring halva for the anniversary of my aunt’s passing, I will believe and hope that always, the halvas will be stirring and their sweetness will carry on… as will our stories.
Mitra Rahbar is an Iranian-born teacher, speaker and singer/songstress. She is the author of Miraculous Silence: A Journey of Illumination and Healing Through Prayer, published by Penguin Random House. Mitra currently resides in Southern California and is an active leader in the Iranian American community.
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