Wednesday, August 10, 2005

REFLECTION: Saint Aslam

I had just parked my car near the intersection of Elizabeth and Cleveland Streets in Strawberry Hills. It was almost midday, and I was meeting a colleague for lunch at our favourite Lebanese restaurant.

He was standing near a shopping trolley containing bottles of water and different kids of soaps. He was babbling away in conversation with people I couldn’t see. He then approached me, holding a wet window cleaner.

“Can I clean your windscreen, Sir?”

Before I could say no, he was already onto the second window. Within 5 minutes, the windows of my humble Daihatsu hatchback were sparkling.

I asked him his name. “My name’s As, short for Aslam”.

I remember having a depressed uncle named Aslam. I also remember a close friend telling me of her relative of similar sounding name who lived on the streets and survived by wiping windscreens. Could Aslam be him?

I stayed with Aslam for a while. We looked an unusual pair, me in my business suit and Aslam in his t-shirt, trackies and sneakers with no socks. He told me he had been wiping windscreens for a couple of years. He answered my questions and those of others. It seemed like he was talking to people I couldn’t see.

Aslam told me he stayed at Matthew Talbot Hostel sometimes. I remembered something Cardinal Pell had written in the Sunday Telegraph on the refurbishment of the hostel which serviced hundreds of homeless men.

Of course, the Hostel cannot accommodate the many thousands of homeless people, many with untreated psychiatric illnesses who have been turned away by their families. These men can often be found sleeping on park benches or outside churches.

Yet even the most unwell of people have dignity and pride. I felt inspired watching Aslam approach people confidently and sell his services. He didn’t insist on drivers offering him tips.

“I just wanna do something useful”, Aslam told me.

Later, my colleague finally arrived for lunch. I told him about Aslam, and we could see him from the front window of the restaurant cleaning away. My colleague was of Lebanese background, and suggested that perhaps Aslam was Muslim.

The words “Aslam” and “Muslim” both come from the same Arabic word which means to surrender and find peace. Standing with Aslam watching him content with a few dollars and his dignity intact made me feel a strange peace.

In most religious and legal traditions, the mentally ill are regarded as without blame. In Islamic traditions, the mentally ill are not subject to the law whilst affected by their illness. A person who lives and dies whilst in a state of mental illness is a veritable saint.

Islamic tradition ascribes the highest spiritual states to the homeless. The spiritual tradition of Islam, known as Sufism, is named after the People of the “Suffah”, referring to a platform in the Prophet’s Mosque where the homeless were accommodated. These men were largely refugees and spent their days either in worship or seeking work.

The Prophet Muhammad is reported as spending much of his time with a women suffering from schizophrenia. She would take him by the hand to an old ruined house she squatted in. He would sit and listen to her babbling. He would ask her to pray for him.

A Prophet asking a schizophrenic to pray for him? Why? Because he knew that her prayers would always be answered. Because this woman was a veritable saint.

Christ spent much of his time with the socially stigmatised – sex workers, tax collectors, the poor and homeless. He gave them his time and his love. He realised that true greatness arises from service to those less fortunate.

“Beware the prayer of someone you oppress, for their prayers reach God without any barrier.” People damned by society are the truly oppressed. When they pray against you, watch out. But when they wish you well, expect to find peace and joy.

I found that after spending just 15 minutes watching Aslam. I gave him $20, a small price to pay for peace of mind. And if he reads this, I hope St Aslam prays for my soul.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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3 comments:

nooras thoughts said...

I like it

dawood said...

I wonder how many saints there are disguised in the hsutle & bustle of modern city life...

Dirk said...

Of course, the Hostel cannot accommodate the many thousands of homeless people, many with untreated psychiatric illnesses who have been turned away by their families.
I think the new age push to uphold the 'rights' of the mentally ill is to blame for a large percentage of these people being left to fend for themselves in a world they don't really comprehend.
Aslam sounds like an interesting man who is rightfully proud of what he does. Good on him - and you.