It is slightly dangerous, I think, to name a child Ziya. Far safer would be a name like Rehema, given to her younger sister at her own Tanzanian naming ceremony. Rehema has almost died five times. Once by flipping over in a raft during Nepal’s monsoon season, once by overdosing on diabetes pills that to a preschooler tasted like really awesome Vitamin C’s, once by cracking her head open in a nasty screen door defenestration incident, once by, well... Anyway, for someone in the habit of flatlining, Rehema, which means “Mercy of God,” can be a damn handy name to have.
But Ziya, in the Swahili language, is a word that roughly translates to “Knowledge of God.” And as one not totally unfamiliar with God the Devil and the Antichrist using one’s brain as a war zone, I would like to say there are less challenging names to go through life with.
The journey to God’s mind takes many paths. Raw computational knowledge. Empathy for all living things. The challenge to see beauty in madness.
But for Ziya it is prophesy. And dreams are its favored channel. Like of flying over New York City and seeing the island metropolis ripped open at its heart. Just before she arrived there to live. On September fourth, two thousand and one. Or of the huge wave of destruction that is the centerpiece of her current painting. I ask her if she started it before Indian Ocean Tsunami. She says, with just a slight enigmatic smile, yes.
It’s a bit disconcerting really. It’s kinda wild and you might not guess at first glance that I’m looking at a striking young woman named Ziya Neema and drinking champagne in the kitchen of Elaine Estern’s art gallery on a perfect Caribbean evening. I had been sent to interview her about her artwork, and hey, whatever else that might come up, as long it’s not, you know, boring.
It occurs to me, as she tells me how she scammed her way out of a northern Michigan high school to go, by herself, to China to study art at the age of seventeen, only to get immediately arrested by the border guards under suspicions of being a Russian prostitute - that nothing in our conversation is going to be boring. (Not to worry, she managed to escape, as the authorities rushed to find a translator for a Russian prostitute who could speak English and Swahili, and perhaps a couple other languages, but strangely not Russian.)
The painting is actually not about the Tsunami, but about our own Caribbean hurricanes. About how this season our islands were strangely spared as hurricanes raged and killed all around us. When she was five, Ziya and her family relocated from Tanzania where she was born, to St. Croix. (Her parents, originally from Michigan and Iowa, were in the Teacher Corps.) When she was eleven, the week before hurricane Hugo, they moved to Marquette, Michigan. There her brother was born and her grandfather died as Hugo destroyed St. Croix.
When you look at the painting you see surrounding it the many stories from that hurricane and others that have been burning in her imagination. Stories of the disappointment she and her sister Rehema felt as they played as children, knowing that their parents flight had robbed their memories of an unimaginable thrill; of the jail that blew apart and set all the prisoners free; the story of the young boy in St. Croix who was like a cousin to them, whose father went mad in the aftermath and kept piling stones on the destroyed roof of their home in a vain attempt to keep it intact as his family fell apart.
Because the painting was not yet complete when the Tsunami hit, she also began to incorporate stories from that event into it. She tells me a story that I had not yet heard. It starts like a hundred thousand others. A woman in sight of her children, but too far to reach them in time, is swept out to sea by the force of a wave that she could not in her lifetime imagine. She can not swim and as she sinks into the ocean, her last sight is of her children, now also caught in the wave, being dragged out to sea.
In her mind she cries out for help to anyone who will hear her. In almost the same quantum timeslice a giant python, nearly as big around as a telephone pole, floats by. Instinctively she grabs on, oblivious to the fear she might have once held for such a creature. The python floats on with her aboard, this time towards her children. She yells at them to catch hold and they do. Then with the children holding tightly, the python swims slowly back to land.
In a short while they are back to where they began. And without a word, (for pythons can not speak) the great snake deposits them safely on shore.
These disasters test us, she tells me. They show us all what we are really made of. We can not know this until we are forced to face life’s extremes. Only then can we find out if we are like the man who is quick to talk, who is raw with muscles and tattoos, but who caves under fire to reveal a coward inside. Or like the tiny mouse, who forced to face the dragon, finds her lion’s roar.
These disasters, she tells me also, can break open the shell of selfishness that people so carefully armor themselves with. The most heart stopping thing about 9/11 she says, that she says anyone who was in NYC at the time would also say, was the incredible outpouring of generosity of all who were there. How their shields were dropped and how for a brief while at least, people lived as God truly intended for us to live. And how now, a world and nearly three years away, the Indian Ocean Tsunami actually stopped a civil war in Indonesia. (At least for a while.) A conflict that had itself raged for years with no hope of resolution.
I asked Ziya if she felt she’s ever been tested by one of life’s extremes. And if she was, was she proud or ashamed of what her experience revealed.
She told me about a memory of when she was nineteen and lost on Mt. Elgon in Kenya, just east of the Ugandan border. She was there with a girlfriend from Alaska and she needed to bag this peak to complete her climb of Africa’s five highest mountains. But the army there told them it was a no go. They could not climb.
But there was also a funny thing having to do with being nineteen and oblivious to the international incident that two teenage white girls caught in an African killing field can cause. They backtracked out of sight of the soldiers and found a trail and started up the mountain. As the massive fireball of the sun sunk into the earth below, a snow leopard leaped across the path before them. It was not a good sign. The trek up quickly turned horrific. Everything the mountain could hurl at them, it did. When they finally summited two days later, they made a pact to take any other way down but the way they came up.
It was in retrospect an incredibly flawed decision. They were following a river when they spotted a man with a machine gun in the distance. Without warning they had stumbled into Uganda’s war zone. For days they were hopelessly lost. The crackle of small arms fire kept them at constant watch. High above war planes screamed through the skies. At one point Ziya fell into a poacher’s trap, a pit with sharpened stakes that was luckily designed for smaller game than her.
After four days on the mountain they were near starving. Ziya’s climbing partner started to crater, then go catatonic. That night while her Alaskan friend began the fall into death’s embrace, Ziya fell into her dreams. In them a man came to her. Follow me he said, and I will get you home. Then he turned away from her and disappeared down a river they had not yet attempted to follow. When the two awoke the girl from Alaska wanted only to die. No Ziya said, follow me. I know the way.
They started down the river the man in her dream had shown her. After only two hours they were walking through farmland. They celebrated by ripping cabbages out of the ground and eating them raw. (Which you have to think would have been amusing to local farmers.) It was only when they finally made it into a village and were intercepted by some extremely pissed commandos that she found out that they had been the cause of an huge multinational search. The planes they heard flying overhead had actually been looking for them, and the entire surrounding countries had been on hair trigger alert.
It’s important to remember Ziya tells me, that your help, that your salvation, can come to you from places that you might never expect to look. From places that you might even be too terrified to look. Like a python who rescues a mother and her children when all else is lost.
And to remember too that positive outcomes are possible from even the most horrific events. Like the Tsunami that stops a raging civil war. Or the first green leaf that peaks its way out of the destruction to say look at me, for I am hope of possibilities yet to be imagined.
And thus reveal a flash of insight, a momentary glimpse of wisdom, for all those caught in the eternal quest for the Knowledge of God.