Dear Ana, Dear All,
We were struggling with technology last night, so found a full engagement with the discussion rather difficult. But we want to thank you, Ana, for leading the conversation and eloquently opening up aspects of pilgrimage in relation to the broader thematic of this Nomadic Dialogue: leading us from the stability, or portability of the stone or rock towards the liminality of the traveller as pilgrim – although the word ‘liminality’ was not used last night.
Liminality, a threshold, a place of betweenness – neither one thing or the other – a state of ambiguity or disorientation prior to a realisation, or resolution, perhaps.
You spoke of travel and your experience of flying to Cyprus as a form of pilgrimage and as a five-hour bubble between the UK and Cyprus: a non-space within which thought or transformations and distillations of thought might occur; a space of transition between your everyday here in the UK towards an unstated, if secular goal. This is something we can all share, as we consider our own journeys, whether from Bergen, Glasgow or Sheffield to Nicosia.
Stepping out of the everyday away, in effect, from what is comfortable and reassuring we enter a realm of movement and uncertainty: one of bodily movement and physical and psychological transition; a threshold world of betweenness, ambiguity and disorientation that can be neither one thing nor the other, while being wholly experiential and physical. Duration contributes to the overarching affects. This alignment of travel as a key feature of the pilgrimage, even though it was noted that pilgrimage can occur without movement, has led us to consider a few thoughts that we want to add to the pool (clear or muddy) of our dialogues.
We all talked of the relatively short distance and duration of our mini-pilgrimages, while the long history of pilgrimage, both in the East and the West, is one of long journeys that could last years, leading in some (perhaps, many) cases to the death of the pilgrim. As such, and understanding the stresses and dangers of pilgrimage, pilgrims would prepare with care and leave their estates (if they had any) in good order should they fail to return. Their’s was a major undertaking driven by a strong commitment and belief. (We don’t want to use the word heroic here but can’t help thinking, should there be a less gendered concept, it might be applicable in this context.)
While returning from Konya in central Anatolia via Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, some years ago, we were witness to a small group of pilgrims already wearing the ihram (cloth garments of Muslim pilgrimage) who were rushing towards their gate and towards Mecca: their demeanour and movement a beautiful mix of urgency and intention; their quick vocal exchanges ones of anticipation. By exchanging their day-to-day clothes for the ihram they had entered the pilgrim’s liminal state. We by contrast were in a state of stasis and, in a sense, a coming down having made our pilgrimage to Konya, and sitting in the liminal non-place of the airport, clutching our coffee cups, and waiting for another call that would take us back to the UK and our everyday.
The relatively short length of travel required now has changed our relation to the liminality of travel and of pilgrimage. If, as was discussed on Zoom, there is a changing of perspective by moving away from the everyday to engage with the act of pilgrimage, then length of travel may have a great effect on the pilgrim’s perspective. There is plenty of evidence of such changes across the literature of pilgrimage to the Middle East, from say, the 4th century Galician woman pilgrim, Egiria, who journeyed to the Holy Land and Jerusalem; or the 13th century rhila narratives of Ibn Battuta or Ibn Jubayr who journeyed from al-Andalus and North Africa respectively to Mecca and Medina, but also to Jerusalem; and in the early twentieth narratives by individuals like, the Muslim woman, Sakineh Soltān Vaqār al-Dowleh Esfahāni Kuchak (1899–1901), the Scot, Lady Evelyn Cobbold (1933), and Harry St. John Philby (1931). These give just a glimpse of the history of pilgrim narratives and we note that there are many more narratives that relate to the various pilgrimages that are undertaken around the globe. In the context of the Buffer Fringe, it’s also relevant to note that Cyprus was both a stopping off or staging point for pilgrims taking the maritime route to Palestine and back again. Certain sites on the island were, and still are, a focus of pilgrimage in their own right.
If travel is a factor in the idea of pilgrimage, our last thought relates to the journeys of those ‘heroic’* groups of political, economic or so-called illegal migrants or refugees (women, children, youths and men) who travel across days and years to leave their everyday in the hopes of finding a transformative space or place to dwell. We wonder, could we not consider them as pilgrims? And in the process wipe away the pejorative usage of the word migrant (immigrant) and its coupling with the word ‘illegal’. A semantic shift that might lead to a greater generosity towards them as fellow human beings and travellers.
‘I am a pilgrim, and a stranger
Travelling through this weary land …’**
* In this instance we have purposefully used the word heroic as a counter to the media and political negativity that surround migrants.
** Lyrics from the Bluegrass adaption of the folk and gospel song, ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’.