When I was a little girl the Washington D.C. Zoo did not have that extra security fence between gawking spectators and the cages of certain animals. My mother used to climb up onto the cage and hand peanuts to the monkeys. I don’t know, maybe that was the beginning of my lifelong love of monkeys. When I moved to Malaysia as Assistant Professor at the International Islamic University I was driving down a main roadway and along the side of the road I saw a monkey scurrying along much like we see squirrels in the US. A new phase in my life began. How many ways to repeat my mother’s antics? Could I possibly top that? This introduction might seem silly but I just have to share one of the most sublime experiences of my life and for that I need to give you a feeling for just how much I love monkeys.
When monkeys are in the wild they are not always amenable to such antics as we humans can do or imagine. I think that’s probably part of survival, don’t you? Anyway, in Malaysia, even though they were as plentiful as squirrels and just as accessible, like squirrels they are not at our beck and call either. We were pretty much limited to the evenings at a local park when they would come down from the trees and let us feed them. Like children do with Canadian geese at Merritt Lake Park here in Oakland, or any where they roam. Once we climbed up more than 1000 stair-steps to the top of the Batu Caves a Hindu temple and tourist spot, to see the sights and feed the monkeys. That time one wily monkey snatched the whole bag of food from my daughter’s hand while she wasn’t looking and that was the end of it. No way to go back to the car and run back with more!
When I lived in Indonesia there were no road side monkeys. This increased the pleasure of my visits to the island of Bali: full of wonder, sun, sandy beaches, palm trees and hundreds of Hindu temples, including the “Monkey Temple.” You can buy some over-priced bananas at the entry as permitted food for tourists to feed the over population of scurrying monkeys. After numerous visits, I learned how to hide the bunch way down in my purse so they would not snatch them out of my hands only a few feet from the entrance. Instead, I made it so they worked just a little harder—for my pleasure and theirs. With most of the bananas hidden away in my purse securely against my body, I would wave just one high in the air over my head, too high for them to grab. In no time at all, one would climb up to get it.
We looked at each other and I pretended they were mistaken—what? You think I have a banana? It’s just the fold of my clothes, or the drape of my scarf. What? You want that banana? What will you do to get it? I wish my mother were still alive so I could share the photos I made my traveling companion take of these antics.
There were several varieties of monkeys that I saw in my travels through India, but none so friendly with tourists and curiosity seekers like the ones in the Monkey Temple, at Ubud in Bali. So, I never got anywhere close.
But once, I took myself off to the mountains covered with coffee plantations to stay at a resort which boasts of its adult tree-house. I arrived in the late afternoon and so it was only a few hours before the sun set and as the darkness descended there was little to do except stay protected from the bugs by screen doors and windows. There wasn’t even a moon to give some visibility. Do you campers know what I’m talking about with the utter blackness engulfing you and only sounds to keep you connected with your environment? I could hear the monkeys screech in the trees: wrestling with each other and calling out their frustrations.
In the morning, before the sun had risen the forest wakes up. You can actually hear the sound of leaves unfolding and of branches swaying in the wind. So I stepped out on the balcony to survey my surroundings in the creeping predawn light. Just enough to see the trees all around me, the rocks below me, where water would tumble over after the monsoons, now dry from drought.
I honestly had forgotten the monkeys were there, once they and I settled for the night. I just wanted to have the direct touch with intense solitude. But in the early hours the monkeys wake up and begin to jump from tree to tree, on their way down the mountain for breakfast. So they unfolded from the branches all around me and danced above my head, like neighbors.
They turned their little faces to look down at me, curious perhaps about this oversized hairless version of themselves, staring back up at them. They stopped just long enough for me to have a word or two and to raise my arms in praise, and love, and sublime joy. It’s been some time since I felt my heart open so fully into the moment of bliss: a holy exchange between me and my favorite creatures. Part of me wanted to leap in the trees and follow them down the mountain side—but even as I knew that wasn’t possible, for a moment I did cease to think of myself in limited form.
Sometimes you must go for joy unfettered by censorship, common sense or social rules. Sometimes, you must take yourself to places to experience things that remind your heart that it is connected to all of the universe. In that moment you awaken to the Divine Love.
May you seek such places, such moments, such bliss, and such one-ness—then with it may you be blessed.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.