It was strange and unsettling to see placards in the streets of Sydney citing blasphemy and calling for beheadings. Violence is not uncommon in Sydney’s streets, but this kind of religious passion, bloodthirsty and globalised, feels alien to us. I hope it remains so. Author Bruce Feiler has said that September 11 was the day the Middle East came to America. On that day, Americans felt what their enemies felt: terror, pride, connection to place. 9/11 was as much infection as invasion. I hope terror and pride never flourish here the way they have there.
Feiler’s written many books, but his breakthrough was Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. Muslims, Jews and Christians all share Abraham. Ancestor, both genetic and spiritual; archetypal desert monotheist; father of a shared blessing sometimes obscured by bloodshed. Feiler points out that what began as a generous overflowing of this central figure’s significance has hardened over time into narrow arteries of fixed and heavily defended meaning. This poem, “Abraham,” is Scottish poet Edwin Muir’s imagining of an aimless, generous wandering, the progenitor unaware of warring kingdoms that would arise after him, waterless under their own particular skies.
The rivulet-loving wanderer Abraham
Through waterless wastes tracing his fields of pasture
Led his Chaldean herds and fattening flocks
With the meandering art of wavering water
That seeks and finds, yet does not know its way.
He came, rested and prospered, and went on,
Scattering behind him little pastoral kingdoms,
And over each one its own particular sky,
Not the great rounded sky through which he journeyed,
That went with him but when he rested changed.
His mind was full of names
Learned from strange peoples speaking alien tongues,
And all that was theirs one day he would inherit.
He died content and full of years, though still
The Promise had not come, and left his bones,
Far from his father's house, in alien Canaan.