The fellowship of the Peepul Tree
The Peepul Tree speaks to people who have read the headlines, seen the news and are perplexed. You have heard of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. News of terror, suicide bombings and war has disturbed you. The Peepul Tree takes you into the strange and wonderful world of Peshawar and the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands in the years leading up to the 9/11 attacks. In the Peepul Tree, you will meet the characters, feel the tensions, and experience a strange adventure.
The Tree of Life The Tree of Wisdom The Peepul Tree
Ten years after the 9/11 terror attacks, maybe it is time for the world to pause and reflect. Perhaps we need to stop and once again learn what and how to feel.
Meditation in a Toolshed
This is not a work of history or analysis. Others must undertake that. I have a story to tell that takes us into the everyday life of Peshawar and the ‘North West Frontier’ of Pakistan. It is a sketch of the people and the life of Peshawar and its environs at a time of momentous events and change. I look, in the words of C.S. Lewis, ‘along the beam’ rather than ‘at the beam’. This equates to the difference between ‘savoir’ and ‘connaître’. Lewis makes this distinction vivid in the following terms:
‘I was standing in the dark tool shed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood the beam of light, with specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing by it.
Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no tool shed and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam and looking at the beam are very different experiences’.
A young man meets a girl. The world looks entirely different when he sees her. Her voice, her hair, her face are infinitely precious. Ten minutes with her are like entering heaven. They are in love. Along comes a scientist saying it is all about hormones and chemical reactions in the brain. He is looking at the beam. Of course, both modes of thought are necessary. My mode will be predominantly connaître or, ‘along the beam’- experience as poetry rather than prose. I will try to push the window open a fraction to let in the light and see what we can see ‘along the beam’. As the window opens, we see beyond the seemingly desolate badlands of the Pakistan-Afghan frontier to the jewels and sparkles, stresses and strains of a world in flux. It is a world reaching for modernity and progress and its own unique Pushtun identity. The story is of struggle in the midst of a growing tide of violence that threatens to drag the people and region down into a new barbarism.
The Pakistan that we experienced was still stable, but becoming troubled. It has since begun to fracture and show signs of unravelling. The questions are mounting and the world is wondering if Pakistan can survive in the face of the Islamist Extremist onslaught. The reader will wonder about these developments and the perplexing conflicts and the threats from a rampant Jihadist ideology. Today, more than ever, Pakistan is the epicentre of Islamic Radical mobilization. It has long taken an ambiguous and even duplicitous stance towards these extremist elements. These large matters lie in the background. I hope that my story will shed light on the everyday realities and deeper fault lines of life in the frontier.
Al-Qaeda (incubating darkly during these years) and the Taliban and a clutch of other extreme Islamist groups were to prove the disgusting brood of a large revolutionary bird. In the fierce crucible of North West Pakistan, the Jihadist Ideology was slamming the doors of reason itself and appropriating the symbols of Islam. Both moderate Islam and the West look on dumbfounded. Are we right to think of a ‘clash of civilisations’, or is the clash something more complex? Are Western secular atheism and Islamist extremism signs of a world losing touch with the roots and songs and gifts of true culture and ‘religion’? Why has Islam entered the modern world bearing so much death and bitterness? Where is the golden age of Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and Averroës? What has happened to that glittering and open Islamic culture? Where is its humour? What is happening in the West where a culture of repudiation and radical self-doubt is taking root? Where is the knowledge of the heart, the taproot of our moral truths? Rather than clashing, maybe civilisations are being uprooted.
At Edwardes College, we lived every day with the tensions and harmonies between two of the world’s great religions played out against a backdrop of post-colonial politesse and an emerging threat of terror.
Under the Peepul Tree
The arc of my story takes us from a familiar home in an English Shire through many difficulties to a strange place. The still centre of the hurricane world of Peshawar was the large Peepul Tree that stood outside my house on the lovely campus of Edwardes College. Its branches are home to noisy parakeets that spend their days in gossip and quarrels. It spreads its delicious shade and looks down impassively on strange and charming events.
The Peepul Tree has observed with great dispassion the unfolding of wonderful events at this special place. Here a community of teachers and scholars has, for more than a hundred years, sought ‘to learn the secret of Fellowship and Peace’. This is the fellowship of the Peepul Tree. It is a place where people and knowledge are ends as well as means. This portion of moral knowledge is desperately needed. It is to be found beneath the Peepul Tree whose roots run deeper than we may know.
One day a rabbi was asked by his disciples, ‘Rabbi, why do you always teach us with stories. Please can you explain your teachings to us?’
‘If you asked me for some fruit,’ replied the Rabbi, ‘what would you think if I first put it in my mouth and chewed it before giving it to you?’
Under the Peepul Tree, we begin to reach for new understandings of our world. As we ride the fearful rapids of change, we learn to live with the weakening of sacred and mythic truths. A rapacious intellectual class forbids intrinsic values and stands in profound alienation from the riches of the Western Heritage. Sacred insights are overwhelmed, leading to a culture of angry and censorious repudiation. The potent brooms of science and reason sweep clean the house of faith. The ‘sap of moral knowledge’ is drying up. Per contra, in parts of the Muslim world, a Jihadist ideology asserts its twisted dogmas with an iron will and Pakistan remains a profound and baffling enigma, even to many of its own citizens.
In the Peepul Tree, we meet compelling characters from whose sacred hands we receive strange and delightful gifts. The Peepul Tree has much to teach and we urgently need to learn. The Peepul Tree speaks to us of the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born. The emerald green parakeets in the branches continue their chatter and their joyful laughter. It is the story, the people, the events, and above all you, who will make meaning and truth out of the tree – a truth and knowledge beyond even what we find looking along the beam. Bring your hopes and dreams and hang them in the Peepul Tree – for you too are the story.
 C.S. Lewis, ‘Meditation in a tool Shed’, Essay Collection ed. Lesley Walmsley, 2002 London. Harper Collins p 607
 In the words of R.H. Noble (Principal 1924-47), ‘We are men of different communities and faiths and races living in harmony and friendship. We work together and try to learn the secret of fellowship and peace… We hope our lives may be more useful and this spirit of helpfulness will enrich the province in which we live “to the greater glory of God”’.
 A phrase used by Roger Scruton to good effect in, Culture Counts, N-Y Encounter Books 2007