June 19 2008 San Rafael
Photojournalist Denise Zabalaga grew up in Switzerland with her Italian mother and Bolivian father. Italian and Spanish were spoken at home. When Denise was sent to school she didn’t know the German spoken there, an experience that gave her a lifelong feeling for, and identification with, the outsider. The experience brought with it the gift of being free from the projection of fear and mistrust upon the stranger. Instead of fear, Zabalaga has a deep interest in people of other cultures and has been able to look past the media coverage of the other that relentlessly panders to our fears.
With a superb gift for languages, Zabalaga quickly taught herself Farsi and its variants and traveled in Afghanistan, Syria, Damascus, Iran and Tajikistan. Over and over Zabalaga was able to manage, traveling always as a single woman. She got into many tight situations, but with her faith that meeting a stranger is, "first of all, an opportunity rather than a danger," and with her uncanny openness and ability to connect with others, she always found her way out of difficulties. What is most meaningful to her in all her travels she puts this way, “most important is the incredible generosity that I experienced. Not only on a material level, but on a human level—all the times they accepted me and included me as a full human being.”
Zabalaga’s interest in the people of other cultures is the basis for her photography and photojournalism. She studied at New York’s International Center for Photography and has worked on a variety of film projects documenting important figures from many different cultures.
We talked on a warm day in San Rafael, California.
Richard Whittaker: Tell me a little about your background in photography and film.
Denise Zabalaga: I travel a lot, especially when I was younger, in my twenties and even before that. I started taking pictures as I was traveling. It started becoming more professional when I lived in Syria and Damascus.
I started taking lots of pictures there. Then I applied to the International Center for Photography in New York. They have a photojournalism program. They accepted me. So I moved to New York. That was from 1999 to 2001.
RW: When you were younger, before you traveled, did you ever have a camera in your hand?
DZ: I actually did. My dad liked photography. He would take lots of pictures, but I couldn’t really say he was a photographer. He had tons of pictures, but always on the same subject. Really boring.
RW: But he loved doing that, it sounds like.
DZ: He loved doing that. And he would go to these photography fairs and wander around and look and look. I was only five or six and he would take me with him.
I just recently found a photograph of myself—maybe I was six—holding a very old camera and looking through it.
RW: In a way, it sort of predicts something about what you’re doing now.
DZ: In a way, it did. Yes.
RW: This is a central thing for you capturing images either in still photography or on video or film, right?
DZ: It is. As my parents were not Swiss, when I was a child, I never quite had an access to the outside world through the word because I couldn’t express myself properly. I didn’t know any German when I went to school. I hadn’t started speaking it, so I was always a visual person, I guess. The way I chose to express myself was the image.
RW: What was your first language, as a child?
DZ: My mother’s. She’s Italian. My second language is Spanish. And so my third language was German, which I learned in school.
RW: So you’re one of those lucky people who speak three languages, or maybe even more.
DZ: Well, it’s just normal in Switzerland because, even if you speak German at home, you will surely learn French and English at school, at least. I’m very grateful for that. It opened many doors.
RW: So when you were at the ICP, did you take a degree?
DZ: It was a certificate program showing that you’d attended this intense photojournalism program. But for me, the most important thing was just being there and being with other people who were expressing themselves through the same medium.
I lived in Harlem then. I would just walk around every day, walk and walk and walk, and take pictures. Just take pictures and walk; cross over to the Bronx and take pictures all over the area.
RW: What are some of the memorable experiences that come back to you now from your time walking around in Harlem or the Bronx?
DZ: Let’s say that being a photographer gave me access to having those experiences, although they may not all be directed at photography. Harlem is a place that many people might have concerns about the people there, about being in an aggressive environment, whatever. The camera has always been like a ticket for me, which gives access and allows for meeting people—I would say, “Okay, because I’m here, I’m going to take some pictures.” Still, not everybody would see it the same way, especially if you’re white.
RW: Did you go alone?
DZ: Always. This is very important for me because I want to be out there. I don’t want to have anything between me and the people. I have to be vulnerable for that. And that’s okay. I think people can sense that. Other people say, yes, but it’s dangerous. I say, well, yes, but maybe it opens up doors. It opens up opportunities.
RW: So tell me, you must have had some memorable moments.
DZ: Well, at the very beginning, I had just moved there and I was walking around the streets. In Harlem, all the people are out on the streets. They’re gathering, they’re talking. I really like that!
RW: That’s life, isn’t it?
DZ: Yes. It’s life! Well, since I had a camera and I like images, I would just start taking pictures! In some cases I would ask, in others, I wouldn’t.
So one time there is this guy and he seems to be really disturbed. He was this black guy, like hip-hop style. He comes up to me. I say, “Oh, well, I’m just taking pictures.” He was really mad. “You don’t have the right to do that!” “Well, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to bother you.”
So let’s have a talk. I just started talking with him, just a human being. And I don’t even remember if it was the same day, but eventually he changed. He would become my friend. At a certain point, he said, “You’re a lady and you’re alone here, so if you should ever have a problem just tell me and I will shoot the guy!” [laughs]
So I met this guy from a very different world. I wouldn’t be able to connect with him on other levels, maybe. But this was a very human level where there was an exchange. There was an understanding, and there was an acceptance. Maybe I wouldn’t have been in that situation if I didn’t take the picture, and if he didn’t get mad at me. So it was great.
It gives opportunities. I don’t mind being out there, or exposed. I think that’s what you need to do to allow life to enter.
RW: When you were in Harlem, and also walking around in the Bronx, did you get into conversations with people quite often?
DZ: Often there would be days where I would be alone. Sometimes conversations or interactions would happen, maybe depending on my own state—how I was and how I wanted to be. Or opposite situations would reflect that to me, how I would feel. Maybe I didn’t want to be talked to, so the situations that would come of it wouldn’t be so nice—or just the other way around.
RW: That must have taken a lot of courage to do that. Did it feel to you that it took courage?
DZ: You mean that walking around?
RW: Walking around in Harlem, a beautiful white woman alone. I don’t mean to press on the racial question, but there it is. It’s a situation that most whites might not have done. There would be some fear.
DZ: There are different answers to that. First of all, I don’t conceive of myself as being a white, beautiful woman. Not because I don’t think I’m beautiful. Not because I don’t think I’m white. I just don’t think in these terms of separation. First of all, because of a feeling—I don’t have a feeling of disconnection to any others. When I see a person, I really don’t see that, “Oh, he’s black. He’s different.” I don’t see the world like that. I know that many people do.
So I don’t feel myself exposed in that situation. Another thing may be because, maybe there’s a deeper level. You know, I told you that I grew up in Switzerland, not being Swiss. So I always felt myself belonging to “the other.” I was myself, the other, right?
RW: I see.
DZ: So there is no separation from the other because I am the other. So I wouldn’t feel threatened, or afraid. I would sometimes be surprised with people reacting to me, because, of course they would see that there was something different. But I didn’t feel myself different.
RW: Well, having grown up in this country I have to confess that in a situation like that, I would be scared. And these fears go with all these racial problems. It’s a shame, but it’s true. The fears are hard to escape from.
DZ: Well it started out from a position of disadvantage because that’s what I lived with in Switzerland. I mean, being the other. But as I traveled the world, it’s an advantage because there is no separation. I’m always with the other. Do you understand?
RW: That’s quite wonderful. It gives this ability to connect with almost any other group. If you go to Afghanistan, let’s say, you don’t feel you arrive from a place of great privilege.
DZ: No. I mean yes, and no. Of course I arrive from a place of great privilege.
RW: But inwardly, psychologically…
DZ: From a human level, no.
RW: That’s what I’m trying to say.
DZ: And what makes me most happy was like when I lived in Syria, or when I went to Afghanistan, people would always tell me—Arabs in Syria or Persians in Iran or Afgans in Afghanistan—they would always tell me, “You don’t feel like a foreigner. You’re one of us.” For me that was like the greatest privilege, the best compliment! They couldn’t have said anything better to me.
RW: No. My goodness, that’s a gift! What countries have you gone to? Since you studied photojournalism at ICP—that was around 1999 to 2001…
DZ: Before that I spent one and half years in Syria and Damascus, and then I went to New York.
RW: Let’s just spend a little time on that. What were you doing in Syria and Damascus?
DZ: I went there to learn Arabic. That was the main reason. At the same time, I was taking a lot of pictures.
RW: Where did you stay?
DZ: When I arrived, I stayed in a hotel. Then I found a place with a family. Then eventually, I moved into my own apartment. Then I changed from one apartment to the other.
RW: You had some financial resources?
DZ: Yes. I started working when I was fourteen. At supermarkets, at restaurants, after school. I saved my money since I was fourteen. I started travelling when I was sixteen.
RW: How old are you now? If you don’t mind my asking.
DZ: I just turned thirty-three.
RW: You’ve done a lot of things since you were sixteen.
DZ: When I think about it, yes. But I always tend to forget what I’ve done. And then suddenly people say that— you did a lot of things! I start to think and I have to say, you know, you’re right! [laughs]
RW: Well, lets go back to Syria and Damascus. You went there to learn Arabic. Tell me about that.
DZ: I was just interested in it. I started reading books of Arabic poetry, but I was reading translations. So I thought, I don’t want to read translations! I mean it wasn’t easy, from many points of view.
RW: Did you find a teacher?
DZ: I had, first, a private teacher. It didn’t go well with him. It was difficult because I was a young woman and he had certain wrong ideas about European women.
RW: There was a sexual issue there.
RW: Was there a cultural issue, too? A beautiful woman, alone, unchaperoned?
DZ: No, I think it was more than that. It was a misconception of us that they had, of us in the West. As we have a misconception of them. Like all of the rubbish from our culture…
RW: The rubbish from our culture in movies, television, advertising and so on?
DZ: Exactly. As we have this image of terrorism. That is not a true image. That’s how we relate to each other.
RW: Through the media.
DZ: Through crap. Through rubbish. I often find that when I go to that part of the world, what I meet is what we have created. All the rubbish that we have created, I meet in those parts of the world. You have to overcome that in order to reach people. The language is a big clue for that. It helps me a lot.
RW: This is a serious problem, worldwide, for the U.S.— isn’t it?
DZ: For the West, generally. But it’s not necessarily just America or Europe. It’s the other. For some reason, it’s always the worst image about the other, all the negative aspects. You know?
RW: Yes, and I’m glad you’re talking about this. It seems that nowadays I don’t hear much about this problem. Back in the sixties it seemed that more people knew about this concept of projection, and the shadow.
RW: It’s a universal problem. I project, but I’m also the victim of that. These negative parts are placed out there on the other. So this is something you have grappled with a lot, right?
DZ: Yes. And it’s actually very painful when you are in that situation. Because, “Hey! Can’t you see me? Can’t you really see me?” And all the other person sees is the projections. It doesn’t work.
RW: What do you think about this problem?
DZ: I don’t know how it used to be before, whether people had more of a sense of this projection, because it’s a psychological term, right?
RW: Yes. It was probably never really a popular idea, but it seems to me that when I was in college, that a lot of people were at least familiar with the idea. Jung’s ideas were better known, I guess.
DZ: So maybe it was relevant in your time, but now it’s even much more important. Like the media image—you see images, and often an image can actually prevent you from seeing the real thing. It’s so easy to manipulate.
RW: This would be a central thing in your vocation. What are you trying to do with your photojournalism? What interests you?
DZ: First of all, humanity interests me. I find that the pictures I take do not necessarily show a certain… I mean, I’m a photojournalist. That’s often about showing what is going on out there, situations, government, a fight. The way I shoot, I really try to catch a certain essence. So often, nothing goes on in my pictures. You wouldn’t know what happens in the country if you look at the picture. But maybe, if you look long enough, there’s something about the person who is looking at you that can connect to you. I don’t know if you get what I’m saying.
RW: I follow you.
DZ: The more I’m working with images—it keeps me thinking more and more and more: If you look at the world in its current state and you think about how media is giving its contribution—how things can be misinterpreted—then I think that images have a lot of power. They can be very dangerous. There’s a lot of responsibility in working with images.
RW: This is a very important question.
DZ: Because often images pretend to show you reality. And often what they do is prevent it. Really. Even in a good way. You can make something look nice. Is it really nice? Maybe yes. Maybe no.
RW: This is a central question.
DZ: You’re a photographer yourself, right?
RW: Yes. But my interests in photography have not been about people, exactly. This is another story, but doing the magazine puts me in relationship with people, and I love that. But here you are a photojournalist and so this is an extremely appropriate subject to be pondering. You are calling yourself a photojournalist, right?
DZ: Yes. But now I’m not taking still pictures. I’m just working with video and editing. I never possessed one of those little cards where you have your name and what you do, because I just didn’t know. I would do so many different things and maybe I would do photography at the same time. I don’t necessarily identify with being a photographer.
RW: I understand that perfectly. Well, let’s get back to the Arabic. Tell me more about what happened with your study of Arabic.
DZ: I picked up a dictionary and I started learning the dictionary word by word. Every day I’d practice, let’s say, two hundred words and maybe I would retain fifty words. I did this for a few months. I would study for a couple of days and really devour the dictionary. Then I would go out to the bazaar and I’d talk with the people. So these months passed. Then there was this teaching institute. They were just starting new classes. So I went and had to pass an admission test and they actually put me in the last level.
RW: Last, meaning high or low?
DZ: Highest level. I was with people who were mastering Arabic, and I’d just been studying Arabic for three months! So of course, I wasn’t as good in grammar. But I would catch up—especially because I would go around on the streets and talk with people. I would go and buy bread and then I’d stand and talk for ten minutes with the guy who bakes the bread. It was great!
RW: I’ve talked with a photographer named Saïd Nuseibeh. He had a Palestinian father and an English mother. Do you know him?
DZ: No. I’d love to meet him.
RW: As a kid, he lost his Arabic, or never learned it. But as a young man, he went and lived with a Bedouin family in order to learn Arabic. I interviewed him. It’s on the web site [http://conversations.org/ ïstory.php?sid=112]. He told me that learning Arabic is very difficult. And there’s a lovely woman from Jordan, Lana Nasser [http://www.arabwomantalking.com/]. Lana told me some things about Arabic, too. There are words that contain a lot, and so are very difficult to translate. Saïd told me the same things.
DZ: It’s so rich! I’m taking some classes in Persian, you know. I like Persian poetry and old Arabic texts. So sometimes these words come up. Lately we’ve been looking at the word rabb which means “lord” and which is used in the Koran. I know some Arabic, but I never made the connection. My teacher said, well you know, from the same root there is tarbita, which means “education and nourishment.” When you see these connections, suddenly you begin to see these things in another light.
RW: In Arabic is that richness and depth conveyed?
DZ: I totally feel so. Yes.
RW: If you have a language that has a word for a particular kind of experience, I think you have more access to that. Does that make sense to you?
DZ: It does. I find it interesting that you say it because that’s what I think. But I don’t know if people, especially let’s say, in America or Europe, if people know about this other dimension of language. I know that I perceive it for myself.
RW: I suspect that people never think about that. But some people are aware of this, at least as an idea. I heard that there’s a word in French that means an attitude of welcoming interest in whatever might unfold in the present moment. It’s just one word.
DZ: It creates a space, this word. Right?
RW: Yes. That’s an example of what different words in different languages must do. It’s like making a space for a certain kind of experience. But without that word, maybe I don’t find that space or have that experience.
DZ: Interesting. You know, let’s say I have to translate for two persons. I have this word and then I have that word, but I can’t create a substance for the word. I have an inner dictionary where I have a taste, a substance, a feeling, a color, a smell—but so often I don’t get the word in the other language. I’m totally lost and I don’t know how to translate that.
RW: So there’s written and spoken language. But you’re interested in visual language, too. Right?
DZ: Yes. I find that it opens up a door, or possibilities, to people, to nations, to cultures, which goes beyond just the expression of who you are and what you want. It includes that, but it goes far beyond.
RW: Well tell me about Global Oneness Project.
DZ: Well, I was involved in another film project. But I had problems with my producer so the project was stopped. And at that time, Emmanuel was starting Global Oneness Project. That’s how it all started. But there is a whole part we didn’t talk about, if you are interested.
RW: Oh, I am. Let’s hear about it
DZ: I left New York in 2001. I went to Iran and Afghanistan. This was after 9/11. I always wanted to go to Afghanistan. I was attracted to their whole history, My life up to then, first I had gone to Syria, then New York, so it was pretty full.
RW: You went to Afghanistan after 9/11. The U.S. was bombing Afghanistan. Where you over there?
DZ: No. I was in New York, but I was planning to go there. So I went to Switzerland and made a few preparations, got my camera stuff together and, in 2002, I went. I went first to Iran because you couldn’t fly directly into Afghanistan at that time. Either you went to Pakistan or you went to Iran, and I was more interested in going to Iran. So I got my visa stuff and booked a flight to Tehran. I was planning to take a bus, go to the border and just cross over into Afghanistan.
RW: Did you already speak a little Farsi?
DZ: No. I arrived in Tehran and was going to stay just a couple of days. Well, as is my nature, I was very curious. I thought, “Oh, Tehran. I will be able to speak some English!” But they did not speak English. Almost nobody was at a level where you could have a conversation and express yourself. And I didn’t know any Persian. So that was a problem.
And despite whatever people are thinking about Iran, Iran is a 21st Century country. It’s a modern world. Well, here I am in Iran and I’m not able to talk with the people. So it put me in an awkward situation.
In a couple of days I’d go to Afghanistan, cross the border and would be in a world that had been twenty-five or thirty years at war—with lots of refugees, lots of poverty, lots of destruction. How am I going to go around and talk with people?
RW: So what’s the language in Afghanistan?
DZ: It’s Persian. It’s Farsi. You speak Farsi in Iran. You speak Farsi in Afghanistan and you speak Farsi in big parts of Tajikistan. But every country has a different version. In Afghanistan it’s called Dari.
So the language is not exactly the same, but I thought, well, I’m in Tehran and it will be more difficult to learn the language in Afghanistan. So I went into the next bookstore and I bought a Persian dictionary. I started learning it word for word. I thought, well, my visa is valid for three months, so I can stay here for three months and study Persian, which will help me in Afghanistan.
So I started doing that. I would study every day, eight hours, ten hours, with my books. Learn the dictionary by heart. Learn the grammar by heart. I would study that way for two or three days and then for another two or three days, go out into the street and practice. I learned.
So that is what I did for two months. I even signed up at university for another six weeks, which was a total waste of time, because there was such a slow tempo. You would learn other things, but from a language point of view, it was just a waste of time.
RW: And then what?
DZ: Well, first of all, my visa was running out. Second, I was there because I wanted to go to Afghanistan. So I took the next bus. I was living in Isfahan and took a bus to Mashhad, which is closer to the Afghan border.
RW: You’re alone all this time?
DZ: Yes. Always. So I went there and took another bus. It was problematic to get to the border. I was the only woman from Mashhad to the border in the bus. At the last station where the bus went, the village was not on the very border. You needed to take a taxi to get there. But no woman was going there. No taxi driver wanted to take me with him because I was an only woman. He shouldn’t do that and it was dangerous. So it was quite a problem to get there. But I managed. I talked to the bus driver and he somehow sympathized with me. Then he gave me a ride and somehow I stood with my suitcases and my bags at the border.
RW: At the border of Afghanistan. Now you’re this single woman traveling in these Muslim countries. Were you wearing the hejab?
DZ: I had bought myself an Iranian chadoor in the bazaar in Mashhad. It’s just this black wrap, but your face is free. I basically did it because I thought, first of all, I should do it out of respect. Second, if I don’t do it, everything will be trouble. So it makes a lot of sense to do it. So that’s what I did.
RW: So then you went into Afghanistan. Was it still being bombed?
DZ: It wasn’t being bombed, in that sense. But it was a post-war, post-conflict situation. They had just bombed. And before the U.S., the Taliban were there and before that, the Russian invaders were there. And then there were all the different tribes and the warlords and all the different fights
RW: But you’re going in there, anyway. So what happened?
DZ: Yes. I stayed for eight months in the country. Many people—[sighs twice] I mean, the biggest concern for people seems to be that I was a woman traveling alone. I say, yes, but there are different aspects of that. One the one hand, I was a photographer, a foreigner, and on the other, this covered woman. I would speak the language up to the point where people would get confused. Well, where is she from? She speaks so well.
I wanted to have access to people, to make things easier for me, but eventually it didn’t turn out like that. People would be suspicious. They would wonder, who is she? Is she a spy? This was the most frequent question. And not only from the Afghan side but also from foreign NGO’s.
RW: They asked, Are you a spy?
DZ: Sometimes jokingly, but even then, there was some seriousness. They would be really suspicious. Why does she speak so well, and why is the camera hidden? Eventually I had to ease those situations. Maybe a soldier would stop me on the street and ask, “What are you doing? Women aren’t supposed to walk alone. Why do you speak like that?” You know, I could just find my way out of that.
I had other situations where they would just kind of arrest me. They would take me to the headquarters and say, “Your papers are not correct! You are a spy. What are you doing here?
RW: So you went through that?
DZ: A lot.
RW: A lot? But somehow you managed. How did you manage?
DZ: I have to say, and I’m very careful about saying it, because it seems to be a little bit arrogant. I wasn’t really afraid that anything would happen. Maybe you could say this was foolishness, because there are lots of reasons to be afraid. I don’t know. I have a basic trust that nothing really bad would happen. Then there was another element. I was very curious about what would happen. Like any situation, I would see it as an opportunity to learn more or to see more about things and how things work out. I would just say, okay, here I am.
I wouldn’t go out at night and wouldn’t walk alone on the street. You know, there were certain guidelines that I would observe. Now, still, this implies many dangers. I accept that this is part of it. I try to be as reasonable as I can inside this whole situation, which is not reasonable!—if you look at it from the outside.
But there’s another thing. When I share these experiences, you know, like, “you’re a spy” and the not very nice things that happened, it’s not the most important part. For me, what is really first and most important is the incredible generosity that I experienced. Not only on a material level, but on a human level and all the times they accepted me and included me as a full human being. And as who I am with my own traditions, not wanting to corrupt it, not wanting to change it!
To tell you a simple example from Afghanistan. I’m traveling and it’s Ramadan. People don’t eat from dawn to sunset. But I would be traveling there and I would meet people who are pretty poor. They wouldn’t have much to eat, anyway, even after sunset! But they would meet me and they would say, “But you have to eat! You are not a Muslim. You’re a Christian.” They would say, “So, please, let us prepare you some food.”
And it’s daytime and maybe they wouldn’t even have any food. So they would go to their neighbors and take up a potato or watermelon. They would cook it, slice it, serve it on a dish, put it in front of me and sit there with me. Since it’s Ramadan, they couldn’t eat, but they would say, “You have to honor us and eat.”
We don’t do this here. We wouldn’t do this! I have never, ever, ever experienced such generosity! This is the way I connect to that part of the world, which makes me feel free even if people say, ”well, you’re a woman.” Yes. Okay. So what?
I put on a chadoor. Do I agree with it? Or think it’s good for women to go around like this? No. I don’t think so. But you know, there is, in another way, a generosity and acceptance of the human being that I haven’t found anywhere else. I just want to be sure that people really, really get this! Because there is such a tendency to focus on the negative things, the dangerous things, which are there. It is one current. But what allows me to move is this other thing that’s true, also.
RW: Thank you for sharing that. Tell me a little about Global Oneness Project. What is GOP doing?
DZ: The idea is to show a way of living, of being together, of co-existence, which reflects this interconnectedness, which goes beyond languages and cultural borders. We try to show people a way that has more of a “we” thinking than an “I” thinking, an “I” perspective. So it’s just this concept called “oneness” which is inherent in human beings beyond our separation. It doesn’t mean we all have to be the same. It includes all this diversity. It actually holds it together.
My special role in that, again, it’s the visual. I think I just give my eye and my sense of imagery to this whole vision. Of course, I share the values. I share the ideas, everything. I strongly support it with all my being, but my special contribution is the visual part.
RW: I’m beginning to feel that my life is spanning a period where nationalism is beginning to give way. It’s hard to know what is appearing. But I have a feeling that in your generation, you’re 33, that something has already shifted.
DZ: It’s interesting. I actually think I’m in the generation that’s in between.
RW: You relate to what I’m saying.
DZ: I totally relate to it. I just feel really in the middle position.
RW: Say a little more about how you see this.
DZ: [pauses]. In the past, up until now the richness was expressed through different cultures, traditions, religions, spiritual systems. When I think about what is going on now, I think about what has gone on in the past. What we have now wasn’t present in the past—this ability where we can connect with each other through media and through the Internet. Basically, in the past you would have communities. You would have cultures and traditions in their own spaces so they could develop and flourish.
So you would have these great civilizations and eventually they would meet other civilizations and they would crash against each other and fall apart. But it was about building blocks or systems. Very individual.
Now suddenly, we see all these other worlds. And it’s a very natural thing; you start to go into the other world. You can go with a nice intention. You can go with a bad intention. It doesn’t really matter. Things are starting to mix, to come together. And then, we’re human beings; so there is all the good, there is all the bad.
All these individual systems, traditions, cultures—now suddenly, they mix together. They lose something from their own essence, but at the same time it seems like it’s about something else. It’s about something common that brings all these cultures, all these traditions, together in another way. In an outward form, many things will get lost, which is very sad. But it seems that, through the Internet, through media and modern ways of communication there is a chance for people to actually unify in another way. To create a new cultural, spiritual and human heritage.
In the past it seems like it was about conquest. All about separations, about defining your culture, defining your system. Now I think the bigger conquest would be to bring it all together again. So it’s a different way of approaching things. And I hope that everybody will be able to take his own essence and put it into the big pot and a new delicious meal can be cooked.
RW: That word “essence” is not a word we hear used a lot anymore. It’s not a postmodern word, essence. But I resonate to what you’re saying. Each one of us has, perhaps, some essence. Maybe I’m not in touch with it so much. And I wonder.
This is a question I have with the Internet, this huge reality. What happens if I spend so much of my time looking at a monitor and typing? And living in just this part of myself? [gestures from the neck up] What happens with the rest of myself? You know what I’m saying?
DZ: Yes. It’s a really good question that you raise. I find it really challenging. I find it very dangerous. I mean, I’m living every day, every second with [gestures to computers and monitors on her desk] and I get depressed, honestly. It can easily eat us up. We can easily be swallowed by this. On the other hand, it’s a powerful tool, an opportunity for unification on another level.
So I don’t know. It seems that all those people who have these great ideas and work with this unifying vision, spend life—on a daily basis—in a small screen. So it’s a paradox. Since it’s a paradox, I say there has to be something true in there.
And it seems that lots of initiatives to create something new, to bring people together, to go to another level of consciousness or awareness, they come from here, from America. America doesn’t have such an old history like other places. And in that sense, it doesn’t have a cultural essence that binds people together like in other cultures. Maybe, since it doesn’t have an essence itself, it will be a breeding ground for all other cultural essences, to collect them. Maybe it can provide a space, which will allow the essences to come together and create something new.
RW: What you have to say is extremely interesting.
DZ: I’m so glad you made the space and the openness for this. I wouldn’t be able to share it without this space to put it. The thing that touches me about this conversation— and maybe it’s interesting to talk about this—often somebody has something and another person has something. But too often nobody has an open space to receive what the other person has. What gives me the freedom to give and to express is to feel, I mean I’m very well aware that you have a lot, but right now, you’re just giving a space, right? [nods] So this gives me the opportunity to express. I couldn’t do it with another person. Where should I put it? You know?
There’s so much out there that the danger is that we all want to impose our ideas. We all have our visions, and we just want to give them. We’re not receptive for the other ideas anymore. We want to give our oneness. So we may have new ideas, unifying ideas, but what if we go with the old attitude? There’s a danger, but there’s also an enormous opportunity at this shifting point.
RW: Yes. Thanks to Nipun [Nipun Mehta] I’ve been in touch with something going on among people in their twenties and thirties. I have a sense there’s a deep reaction against our materialistic, commodity culture. There’s this phenomenon called “the gift economy,” for instance.
And it’s interesting what you were saying about the U.S., that maybe it can provide a space. Certainly there is some refuge here for Tibetan Buddhism, for instance. Buddhism, in general, is finding a home here. But in India, Nipun says that materialism is just sweeping through the entire country. It seems that everything is changing.
DZ: It’s kind of inverting, right? All our rubbish is going there and their treasures and gold are coming here. The challenge is that we don’t treat this in a materialistic way. We shouldn’t treat it as another opportunity for consumption. That’s the danger, because that’s such an old mindset, old pattern, just to get things and to consume them. So if we want to create something new, we should also approach it with a new way of thinking and being.
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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