Building a Home away from Home
By Riddhima Poddar
The first week of February is observed as the World Interfaith Harmony Week across the globe. Its inception dates back to September 23rd, 2010, when H.M King Abdullah II of Jordan proposed the idea at the Plenary Session of the 65th United Nations General Assembly in New York. The draft resolution proposed a special week, where people could engage in dialogue and share teachings of their respective faiths, creating an environment that promoted tolerance, mutual respect and celebrated the commonalities despite differences. Almost a month later, on October 20th 2010, the resolution was unanimously adopted and has been celebrated worldwide ever since.
This year, the theme for the Interfaith Harmony Week is “The Diaspora- a Force of Positive Change”. While diaspora is a term that is usually associated with migrants, in my opinion, it denotes much more. It encapsulates people who strive to create a place for themselves in a foreign land while grappling to safeguard their national, religious and cultural identities.
We may, in our indifference, fail to learn about cultures that are not our own but the diaspora always makes the effort to understand and respect the new culture that is thrust upon them. Their magnanimity, however, is not always returned. The diasporic community never truly belongs- they find themselves oceans apart from the world that they had always known, and their adoptive ways never quite feel their own. Acceptance is scarce- not just from others but also from within.
To accommodate the diasporic population, I believe, it is better to dissipate any discomfort that might arise when speaking with someone with a different approach to life. We must inculcate values that encourage cultural literacy. While it is bizarre to expect everyone to know and understand about all the different cultures and traditions that are out there, we can always make a conscious choice to understand the other by putting in the effort to educate ourselves about the different ways that people we encounter, live their lives by. We may or may not understand their traditions but that does not have to stop us from treating them with respect.
Schools can be instrumental in this endeavour for they nudge children in the right direction during their formative years, shaping individuals that grow up to be more inclusive and accepting. I say this with certainty because I experienced it first-hand.
I studied in a boarding school where we had students from not just India but from countries across the world, seeking quality education. Once every month, we would have a cultural week during the morning assemblies where each day was dedicated to a particular country from which the foreign students hailed. That day, the assembly would be conducted in their national language, the choir would sing a hymn that the students from that particular country resonated with, facts about the country and its traditions were shared in English for the convenience and comprehension of everyone present, and we the assembly would be concluded by playing the national anthem of that country.
This school ritual is one of my fondest memories. I remember being fascinated by how diverse and rich these traditions were and each month, I would look forward to the cultural week so that I could hear the prayer songs and national anthems of different countries. At the time, I thought my curiosity stemmed from my love for music, but I have since discovered my penchant for learning about the societal and cultural codes of different countries and taking delight in understanding how different people respond to or in a given situation. One distinct incident that I will never forget is back from when I was 10. I remember patting the head of a classmate from Thailand. I was doing so adoringly, wanting to praise her for a task done well, not knowing that to her, this act was insulting. She explained how in her culture, touching someone’s head is considered offensive for the head is deemed sacred. She could have easily gotten angry with me at that moment but she understood that my intentions were not malicious.
What struck out to me at that moment was the power of dialogue. She could have simply brushed my hand aside and I would have dismissed it as rude behaviour. But, she chose to share how she interpreted the gesture while giving me a safe space to share my intentions. We both probably learnt something new that day- we chose to acknowledge our differences and accept each other as we were, creating a beautiful bond in the process. That, to me, is interfaith harmony; because it is not our differences that limit us, but our inflexibility to look past them. On the occasion of the World Interfaith Harmony Week, here’s to a world that in all its glorious differences, lives in peace and harmony- embracing and celebrating diversity!