Why were you so consumed with the idea of crossing boundaries, with dualism?
Because I physically crossed boundaries at such a young age. I went from India to America, and I didn't know it growing up, but there had been created in me psychic boundaries that I didn't understand fully.
What do you mean by that?
Things like clothes, the fact that I couldn't wear tank tops in front of my father until I was 28. I didn't wear a skirt until my college graduation. In Muslim culture women aren't supposed to show their arms and legs. I went along with it, but I didn't really understand that this was a demarcation from the Western culture in which I was living.
But I knew that there were boundaries within me. In my late 20s and early 30s the boundaries began to create confrontations within myself because I started challenging them.
What were your internal confrontations?
The big one was love. I had grown up being told I would be married to the man to whom I lost my virginity, and that I wasn't going to kiss anyone except the man I married. So I didn't date when I was growing up. I was asked out to the high school prom and said no.
Then finally I fell in love with some guy at 19, and he was an American, a green beret--everything that was opposite to me in terms of identity, so what was that about? I was crossing a boundary, but I couldn't be honest with my parents about it. I told my mother about him, and she said "Stop dating," but my heart wasn't listening and my body wasn't listening. All through my 20s, in that most intimate way, I was confronting boundaries because I was falling in love.
And love is where you really confront your deepest self. That's where you can be magnificent and rise to your highest potential. I also found in love my greatest darkness--the competition of identities.
How did the assignment to understand tantric sex play into your journey?
I couldn't have been given a better opportunity to come to terms with the stuff raging within me. I was in New York, it was the summer of 1998, and I had this boyfriend. He was a "technical virgin," a guy who never consummated any of his relationships. And it was torture. He wouldn't talk about it.
Then I got this assignment to go out and find out the business of tantra, and who is making money off it. You know, Who is Mr. and Mrs. Tantra of America? I had never even heard of tantra. So I went to websites and saw all these pictures of people having sex in positions you wouldn't believe. I learned it was from India, so I called my parents and asked, "What is tantra?" and they said, "What is that?" I spelled it, and they said, "Oh, dahntrah." They said it's black magic, that it's the dark side. But of course that's not how it's being sold here-it's all about sex here. I thought it was all hocus-pocus, and I made fun of it.
Both. Muslim culture in India really doesn't have much respect for Hindu culture, so I grew up mocking the goddesses and gods and not even really understanding them. And I had an attitude because I thought, "Oh, these Americans are just going off and chasing after Eastern philosophies." I never went to a yoga class until I started tantra research.
So what is tantra to you?
It's a complicated philosophy and a way of life. It defined for me a lot of principles that I hadn't understood well, about how to live in this world. A few of them became important to me: overcoming your fears, incorporating your sexual energy into your whole self, and also being truthful to yourself and others about who you are. Utlimately, tantra teaches how to liberate ourselves from the mundane in this world. For the first time I was able to understand the techniques of living in the present moment, and through heart rather than through ego.
All these years I thought I had to be defined by boundaries, and I found that I have ownership over my own self. I had India claiming me, America claiming me, Islam claiming me. I didn't fit in in India, and I didn't fit in in America and I didn't fit in in Islam. But now they coexist peacefully. I'm proud to be American. Proud to be Indian. Proud to be a Muslim woman. I don't feel like I have to masquerade.
Aren't many people facing that same struggle?
Yes. At book readings, 60-year-old white men come to me and say that they have boundaries within themselves that they're trying to understand and transcend. They have dimensions within themselves they're not expressing. I've learned that the struggle is universal and global. We think of it as mostly an Eastern phenomenon, because there are so many physical confines there-women who aren't allowed outside the house, women who wear the veil, men who because of their caste have to take on a certain occupation, or if they're an eldest son, they have to continue the family business. We're all struggling to be free, and this quest for peace of mind really amounts to having clarity within yourself about who you are and where you fit into the world.
How does your experience with September 11 play into tantra?
A lot of my confrontations within myself led to broken relationships. I wasn't able to find love because I didn't really know who I was. It's the same way in the world. We've got identities that are confronting each other--that's what 9/11 symbolizes. We had Muslims who admire so many elements of Western society, including the freedom, expressing hatred toward the West. It was a love-hate relationship playing itself out.
I believe the tantric principles of transcendence could help the world be a better place. If we could transcend boundaries of identity on a global level, then we could understand each other as human beings. It sounds hokey, but the truth is that when someone from the Wall Street Journal talked to a fruit seller or the cab driver, or even me-we all happened to be Muslim-then they understood each other and realize we're just trying to get kids to college and to be content.
You wrote a lot about your friendship with Danny Pearl. What did you most learn from that tragedy?
The value of transcending identity. This journey began in Washington because I had been briefly married to a traditional Muslim man, and was just recovering from the divorce and met Danny there [while he was also working for the Wall Street Journal in Washington]. He took me down to the volleyball courts one day, and I started to play. I learned how to have fun--having fun for me represented crossing a boundary. Because immigrant culture means working, working, working. I learned to enjoy American culture. As an immigrant kid, I never went on a family vacation. We always would go to India and that would be our vacation. So Danny was helping me bridge the worlds. That's what throwing my first party with Danny meant. I could learn how to socialize in the American way.
Then we found ourselves in Pakistan after September 11. I had fallen in love and thought it was real love. One day Danny and his wife, Marianne, came to visit me, and that afternoon Danny went for the interview [that resulted in his kidnapping]. And when he didn't come back and we started getting pictures of him being shackled, I could see in one of the pictures that he seemed to be laughing. Danny's spirit was present there, even though they had his hands in shackles and a gun to his head. Then the kidnappers started defining him as a spy for Israel, and a spy for America--that was the furthest from the reality.
He was taken by people who thrived on creating a divide in the world. I understood a lot of why they were reacting the way they were because they felt like victims--but at the end of the day they were doing wrong.
I don't even think I've accepted it yet, honestly. I've gone through a lot of the cycles of grief, but I think I stay focused on so much of the essence of Danny's life that I haven't quite focused on his death. The essence is what allows you to be optimistic about the future, to not just live with the hatred or anger that comes out of something like that. But whenever I flip through Newsweek or another publication and I see his picture, I still wonder, "Why is Danny there?"
By dying, he gave me the final lesson I needed to know, that a divisive a lifestyle wasn't the way I wanted to live. The people who killed him weren't living with universal principles of all of us being human beings. The kidnapper had a little boy, and the boy's father is in jail now, sentenced to death. His little boy isn't going to have a dad, and Danny's little boy isn't going to have a father. So we have tragedy in the next generation.
How would things have turned out in your journey of self-discovery if September 11 hadn't happened?
It would have dragged on longer. Darkness is hell, there's no doubt about that. But if you can confront the demons, they force you to decide who you are. Really, that's what Danny's death did for me. I wasn't going to pretend anymore-I was trying so hard to straddle two worlds, and I realized I could soar above it.
So the struggle with the boundaries led you to a love affair with a Muslim man in Pakistan. And then you found yourself pregnant.
Three weeks into looking for Danny I realized I was late with my period. I didn't have any symptoms because I hadn't had any room for that. I told Marianne, and she said, "You have to go buy a test right away." So we went at midnight to a 24-hour pharmacy across from the Sheraton in Karachi with armed guards. We were traveling everywhere with armed guards and I thought, "The last thing I need is for these guys to see me getting a pregnancy test."
I took the test, and it was positive. The idea of it was so hysterical to us-two pregnant women-that Marianne started laughing. I managed to smile, but I was scared about what I was going to do. My boyfriend had bailed on us.
What had happened?
He kept saying he was conflicted. I saw in him a man still defined by identity confusion. I'd been there, so I knew what it was like. His choices were very much clipped by his parents and by what he thought was right in Pakistani society and fears of what could happen to him if he were involved with a woman who was friends with a man who had just been kidnapped. After Danny was kidnapped and he said he couldn't be part of my life, I said, "I don't want anything to do with you because you've abandoned me in my time of need."
But I called him because I knew I had to. And I was hopeful, because I was still in love with him. I thought maybe he would care enough about the baby that he would overcome his fears. Actually I was afraid, too, to be alone with him. This was a crime in Pakistan to be pregnant out of wedlock and I didn't know what his reaction would be.
So I told him, and he just said, "I have to go," as soon as I told him. I started sobbing. I was devastated. But ultimately that symbolized what he had to do-he had to go, and couldn't participate. For months through the pregnancy he kept saying he would want to be a father, but at the end of the day the truth was he had to go, and couldn't rise to the occasion.
Sometimes in our greatest sadness we come to our greatest clarity. I realized that traditional Islamic culture wasn't my world, and it wasn't the way I wanted to live. My world is about universalism, non-judgment. I finished the book on the baby's due date. My mother babysat me through the night while I wrote and wrote. Then, last October, I went into labor and came to know the divine love I'd been looking for when my baby arrived.
You named him Shibli. What does that mean?
It means "my lion cub." His name comes from one of my ancestors from the late 19th century, a great Muslim scholar. I'd researched him extensively to see if he was the kind of Muslim that I am-someone who believed in universalism and knowledge. Very much a Sufi understanding.
So you identify as Muslim?
Yes, because I'm very much that religion culturally. Even though there is so much about Islam I can't accept or don't understand, I turn to it in my times of greatest need. I actually did the Belief-o-matic and my faith turned out to be Unitarian-Universalism--and Reform Jew was even higher than Muslim. So we can't be boxed.
I incorporate Hinduism and a lot of Buddhism because ultimately I believe the philosophies are common. Every religion has a different way of teaching impermanence. Every religion has a different way of teaching peace of mind. And compassion. These are principles that define virtually all the religions.
How are love and sex-the tantra aspect of your journey-part of your religious understanding?
It all leads together. Tantra literally means to weave. To live well in this world means weaving your sexual energy, your romantic energy, your intellectual energy, your creative energy, into a true self. If you are conflicted about your sexual energy, then you are conflicted in your soul.
My journey began with this guy who wouldn't talk about sex and was causing so much conflict within himself and me--I realized sexuality has so much to do with our identity and becomes a vessel for a lot of issues. If you can love yourself you can fully love another person.