Coffins lined up side by side in Lampedusa
Andrea Malaguti

LAMPEDUSA — Yesterday, they buried those remaining of the 385 victims from the Oct. 3 shipwreck off Lampedusa. There were no flowers. No gravestones. None of the ceremony that so many had promised.

That first day, as the death toll mounted, various political leaders, including Prime Minister Enrico Letta, had called for some kind of official state funeral to mark the worst such recorded tragedy of its kind, as would-be immigrants from Africa died trying to reach the shores of Italy...of Europe.

But two weeks later, those promises that had been so easy to make in the moment of dismay had just as easily been forgotten. For the funerals here, and elsewhere, there was no TV coverage. No President of the European Commission in attendance, or even the Italian Foreign Minister.

It was dark and cold on this tiny island, just like the sea that swallowed its victims, mostly Eritreans but Syrians too — and returned them swollen, in tatters, without an identity.

It’s the perfect end to a non-story, made up of non-men, non-women, and especially non-children. They’re just numbers lowered down at random into the stomach of the universe. Wasted. Without any distinction.

Five of them, the luckier ones, were buried in a cemetery on the main island of Sicily, where the town of Sambuca di Sicilia made a part of its graveyard available to them. The mayor of the town, Leo Ciaccio was there, along with about 20 refugees — half of whom were survivors of this latest tragic accident.

Who were these five? Who knows. We only know that they needed to be put in the ground quickly, before diseases set in, local doctors had warned. There was a proper funeral ceremony for those five, with priests and mourners. The attendees were dressed in black, rocking back and forth in pain, crying for the loss of their compatriots. In another town, where another 85 were buried, proceedings went much faster, with many more corpses to be dealt with, the coffins lined up side-by-side.

“I’ve never, ever seen so many together,” the graveyard caretaker says. There were no namecards to tell them apart; just numbers. With a marker it was written on the wall: here, on the left, are numbers 6, 23, and 98.

A shame

“What has Italy become?” asks Enzo Billaci, a lifelong Lampedusa resident and local fisheries official.

Indeed, the country is not even the true destination of those who died off her shores, a place where the living don’t even want to be identified, with the real dream of escaping to Sweden or England. Only the dead are forced to stay. “When I saw the mechanical arms of the ships carry off the white coffins of the children, two by two, my heart broke,” says Billaci. “I’m ashamed.”

Even the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusy Nicolini, is contrite. “If they had told us they would be taking away the coffins, we would have arranged for these people to have if not state funerals at least national funerals,” she says.

The public farewell — without caskets, without bodies, but with an Italian flag — will be held Oct, 21 “in the presence of government representatives,” says a statement from the Ministry of the Interior. It will take place in Sicily, many miles away from Lampedusa — after the victims have already been laid to rest, an attempt to pretend that there is mercy.

“Lampedusa has respect for those who come. When I saw the coffins, I thought about all those we have saved over the past 20 years. Thousands of them. I wonder if the Interior Ministry has the same respect,” whispers Mayor Nicolini. She’s exhausted. She stays on the pier with her eyes focused downward for five minutes, not speaking.

A scream

Some of the coffins were donated to the victims. An unknown lucky few ended up in the private tombs of some families. They are ordinary Italian citizens who thought, if the state doesn’t do it, we will.

We traveled back to the main island of Sicily on Thursday, where there was a priest and imam together for another ceremony in the city of Gela. Here, the victims were buried facing Mecca, in among all the Christians of the cemetery. One mourner, a woman in her sixties named Mufid Abu Taq, looked on as the bodies were lowered into the graves. “These people came from the sea with the hope to live,” she says, “but running away from war they met death.”

Abu Taq is a large woman, who exhaling with a sort of low, continuous moan. But then, without warning, she begins screaming, a scream that carried the decades of her life for all to hear.

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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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