Cultural connections

I walked into the Aga Khan museum in T alone but felt as if I was walking alongside a throng of people. There were the intimate conversations that I was having with a friend who had guided me to the museum, knowing that I would have time to spare in T. He had gone as far as googling the museum’s opening times and location for me. Our many unfinished conversations and laughs were being punctuated and completed in my head by snippets of an exhibit that (in my mind at least) referenced threads of a conversation we had never finished.

There had been hundreds of such moments over the last few months, our words stumbling over each other on text or on phone  or in person, colliding as snaps, intricately representing the amount and intensity of things we had to share. And quickly; almost as if we were running out of time to tell each other everything, a chance to open every cranny in hearts that had lived many lives together but were still trying to catch up.

My second companion was the invisible feel of my mother’s bird-like hand clutching my right arm as I led her through a room steeped in Islamic history, stopping to highlight artefacts that I knew would resonate with her childhood in India, her immersion into the faith after her divorce and her creation of a patchwork quilt understanding of Islam.

The alam from the panjatan. Versions of the Quran written in gold foil on fragile parchment. A wall-sized map tracing Islam’s growth across time, country and culture. Blue and white painted porcelain. Carved boughs of wood. And multi-coloured clothing.

My third accompaniment was a throng  representing my religious sect – the Dawoodi Bohra faith, a group of Shia Muslims so closely aligned to the Ismailis that the museum held special signficance for both of our religious groups. They stood with me leaving nose and forehead smudges on glass cases, jostled to get closer to the panels of calligraphic qurans with their gold plated strokes and blue inked curves, and traced the most powerful phrases of Allah’s written word across their chests. As I did.

It was a journey of discovery, a filling of the crossword puzzle that is everyone’s heritage. And yet there was no final piece to the jigsaw, no closure, because as close as our history was to that of the Ismailis, there were moments that could only be theirs – never ours. Like their connection to Persia when ours was to Yemen.

In seeing that, the gaps felt more poignant, the untold narratives that defined our religious sect felt more pronounced. There was a deep sadness that our community had not collated our stories to share with the world. Only in breathing life into a story does it live forever. I came away feeling that although I had experienced so much beauty, my story had not yet been told.

Even my conversations  with the Ismaili guides at the museum, many of whom had  originated from East Africa, did little to lessen my soledad – my longing for an intangible sense of home that was neither Kenya nor India; not family or religious community; which could not be satisfied by Swahili food in T or a conversation in Gujrati about Mombasa’s favourite haunts.

I felt exiled. From my country, my culture, my religion and my family. And I knew that as far as my journey had brought me, I still had many  steps to take to find a place that I could call home.

I had walked into the Aga Khan museum surrounded by people.

I walked out alone.


Aga Khan Museum