Love knows no bounds
Manon Gauthier-Faure

GUIPAVAS — In the Jacques Brel retirement home in Brittany’s town of Guipavas, Marcelle Plougoum looks at Jean-Noël Michel tenderly. They first met in a medical center for senior citizens, and have loved each other for three years in this modern residential community surrounded by gardens. “We stay together all the time,” Marcelle explains. “Being apart would drive us mad!”

The couple doesn’t sleep in the same bed, but can be together often thanks to a door connecting their rooms. They spend a lot of time in Marcelle’s room, tastefully decorated with photographs. But the one of his beloved Jean-Noël is carefully put away. Though the other residents know about their love affair, they do not dare flaunt it. “We don't show that we are involved, because people get jealous. We kiss only in the bedroom,” the old woman explains.

Relationships and sexuality remain taboo in retirement homes. After all, privacy is hard to come by in a place where the elderly need care and medical treatment daily.

So the French agency Elorn, which manages three retirement homes, has developed a special training seminar for caregivers to familiarize them with sexual and intimacy issues among the elderly. This initiative has been encouraged by French minister for the elderly Michèle Delaunay, and Elorn is also offering staff training in its two other retirement homes.

These sessions allow caregivers, residents and families to meet and talk. The first meeting on July 14 drew 400 people and gathered sexologists, university professors and psychologists to discuss the subject. Corinne, one of the caregivers at the Ker Laouena retirement home, finds it very useful. “It did me a lot of good. We felt a little bit uncomfortable seeing old people kissing. It used to be a bit shocking, but it’s not anymore.”

Elorn director Eric Seguin is one of the project organizers. “The medical staff should be aware that sexual desire remains present for people even up to age 80 or 90,” he explains.

Valérie Daniel, a nurse at Ker Laouna who was present during the first training session, says that the residents often feel embarrassed about their sexuality. “Some of them have had platonic love lives.”

Let’s talk sleeping arrangements

That bashfulness is why many residents don’t want to see drastic changes. Seguin says he would be willing to put two single mattresses together in the same room, giving couples the option to sleep either in double beds or in connecting rooms.

“It's always better to have larger rooms and connecting bedrooms,” resident Yvonne Bergot says cheerfully. She moved two years ago into Ker Louena on the seaside to be with her husband, who died in January.

Like Marcelle and Jean-Noël, the couple spent most of their time together, in either one of their two bedrooms. Not at night, though. “Sleep in the same bed? I never even thought of it,” Yvonne confides.

In the Jacques Brel residence, Marcelle and Jean-Noël don’t necessarily want to share a bed either, especially since they require different amounts of sleep. “The couples can also feel awkward regarding their children’s way of thinking,” says Seguin. “That's why one of the main purposes of the training is to help residents to stop feeling guilty.”

Seguin believes the training will continue to be necessary as time goes on, if only for the staff. Resident profiles will no doubt change as children of the 1960s and homosexual couples arrive, and though “these people won't be shy about their sentimental and sexual lives, the staff’s mentalities need to evolve,” he says.

Another issue is life expectancy. Though right now women represent 90% of the residents at the three homes, men are expected to be as numerous as women in the years to come. And that means more coupling.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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