Migrants in Calais on Aug. 9
Julia Pascual

CALAIS â€" Three rows of men gather side-by-side, their heads bent down. A coffin lies on the sand, in front of them. They silently pray and place the coffin down a deep pit. Moussa Houmed was 17; he was Eritrean. He dreamed of setting foot on English soil, but ended up drowned in the retention basin of the Channel Tunnel.

A few meters from the Muslim section of the northern Calais cemetery, where some 50 men are assembled, three women are waiting to leave flowers. They come from Paris and Gex, in the Ain department, in Eastern France. “I didn’t know him," one of the women admits. "My cousin who lives in the United States called and told me he was a distant cousin." Another explains that she found out about the tragedy from fellow Eritreans. "Being here, showing solidarity is the least we can do," she says.

Some of the gatherers have driven for six hours to attend the funeral. “He’s like a brother to us. I used to be like him," says one Eritrean man, who traveled here from Cholet, in the West of France, where he has lived for the past five years.

"It's going too fast"

Charities and communities organize to take care of the dead of Calais â€" 10 since early June. They are Eritreans, Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Sudanese ... "There are too many of them, it’s going too fast," says Lou Einhorn, a psychologist for Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World).

The NGO has a mobile clinic in the camp â€" "the Jungle," as it's often called â€" that shelters almost every migrant. It is situated in an industrial zone called "the dunes," a few kilometers from the city center. "There are more than 2,000 people here. They don’t necessarily know one another," the psychologist explains. "Newcomers arrive all the time. So, an Eritrean or a Sudanese may disappear without us knowing."

Police are even more in the dark and rely on the NGO for help identifying bodies or locating family members. Sometimes, investigations do not lead to anything. On July 4, a pregnant woman fell from a truck. She gave birth prematurely; her baby died within an hour. She then disappeared. "The morgue called us but we couldn’t find the mother," says Einhorn. Baby Samir was buried July 13 in the southern Calais cemetery.

In mid-July, when a 23-year-old Pakistani man was electrocuted at the Eurotunnel site, the charity "organized a visit at the hospital and a meeting with the doctor and a translator to have him announce the young man’s death to the community," Einhorn explains.

Remembering the dead

Mariam Guerey, from the Secours Catholique (Catholic Relief Services), guards the dignity of the deceased. She knows that Muslims prefer to bury bodies in France whereas Catholics and Orthodox tend to repatriate the departed. She remembers all of them. Jean-Pierre Everaere died while trying to rescue an Eritrean who fell in the Saint-Omer canal, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Calais. It was in 2008. Both men drowned. "We attended Jean-Pierre’s funeral with migrants. And we read a poem at church," she says.

In the jungle, resourcefulness is essential. Nima Senaici, a volunteer for the non-profit Muslim organization Aleds, recalls being asked for help once while distributing food. "A Sudanese man came to talk to me about his friend who was run over by a car. We launched a fundraising campaign and contacted funeral services," she says.

Corpses can stay several weeks at the funeral home before getting a grave. "We can wait for one month. Even less when we need room," says Stéphane Chochois, the head of the Forensic unit in Boulogne-sur-Mer. The forensic doctor carries out autopsies on migrants to rule out any other cause of death than the accidental one.

Nameless graves

In the camp, stories circulate around death. On July 24, a car on the highway hit Ganet, an Eritrean woman, while she was coming back from the tunnel. In the jungle, some people say she was dazed from being gassed by police. Other women say she just wasn't paying attention.

There were also some uncertainties regarding the July 19 death of a man at the Eurotunnel site. The rumor that a truck intentionally rolled over him spread quickly. Dr. Chochois thinks the man likely fell. “He probably realized that the truck was going to France, decided to get off, slipped underneath and was caught under the rear wheels. His skull was spread over 5 kilometers.”

Dr. Chochois has been participating for years in the "meticulous work" of putting names to lost lives. "We try to identify migrants through their fingerprints. But they cut their fingertips" â€" so as not to get send back to the country where they had been arrested and registered by police, he explains.

Even when the digital machine gives results, "it can provide 10 aliases," says Chochois. "So, when it’s possible, we take a picture and we ask embassies to trace the family, using physical details. There have been very few tangible results. Most of the time, they’re buried anonymously."

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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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