Precious Memories from the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
By C. Naseer Ahmad
Washington, DC: “Through the White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), we are working to ensure equal access to federal programs that meet the diverse needs of AAPI communities. We are standing up for civil right, economic opportunity, and better outcomes in health and education,” said President Barack Obama on April 30, 2013 – one day before the AAPI Heritage Month. Action has followed these sincere words to celebrate the contribution of AAPI communities to America. It is a series of month-long events occurring for almost a quarter century in America.
Music has a spiritual effect and it was so propitious that the White House Initiative on AAPI began with Riyaaz Qawwali. With a few strokes of the harmonium strings and some beats of the tabla, Riyaaz Qawwali turned the Yates Auditorium, US Department of Interior, into a spiritual space consumed by the Sufi spirit of Bulleh Shah – thousands of miles away from his eternal resting place in Kasur, Pakistan.
With such a beginning at the early hours of May 6, 2014, the spirits were singing “mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning... praise with elation, praise every morning.”
Cat Stevens – now Yusuf Islam – was not in the Yates Auditorium but Gautam Raghavan, Advisor, White House Office of Public Engagement and Kirin Ahuja, Executive Director, White House Initiative on AAPIs were, and they made the event fly. Under their wings were gifted artists like Kama Hopkins with Hawaiian songs and Maxie Moua – a Hmong American - with her moving poetry.
“I am beyond” was an inspiring and evocative panel discussion moderated by Konrad Ng, Director, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. The spoken words of the distinguished panelists were surely in the English language but the poetry and spirit of the great Sufi mystic Bulleh Shah was coming through in unvarnished Punjabi. They spoke with clarity and with an inspired purpose.
“Immigration builds and continues to build,” said Vice President Joe Biden during this kick-off ceremony where he inducted the new commissioners. "Please do not buy into the cynicism about immigration reform,” he added while discussing immigration reform as well its detractors.
This straight talk invoked memories of a similar talk from the then thirty-some Senator Biden to a handful of graduates students like myself at George Washington University’s Marvin Center, a few blocks away from the Yates Auditorium. In 1975, he was not a stuffed shirt then and Vice-President Joe Biden is still the real deal now.
Around the corner and a day earlier at Daughters of American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall, “Peace through Music” was a beautiful event. This special nationally broadcast concert celebrated the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II in the spirit of Pope Francis. This honored not only two great men but also their commitment to interfaith dialogue, tolerance and mutual respect. The philosophical inspiration of this concert came from Nostra Aetate (“In Our Age”), a declaration of the Second Vatican Council issued in 1965 on the interfaith dialogue and relationship between the Catholic Church and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.
The memorable musical event was directed by world renowned American Conductor Sir Gilbert Levine with the Orchestra of St Luke’s, Krakow Philharmonic Choir and the Washington Choral Arts Society. The event was sponsored by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Ambassadors of Italy, Poland and Argentina, Sharon Rockefeller – President WETA Television and Dr John J. DeGoia, President Georgetown University.
This spiritual event brought back memories of Saint John Paul’s visit to Pakistan on Feb 16, 1981. It was an event noted by Dawn on May 29, 2014 – “The Pakistan zeitgeists: A nation through the ages” by Nadeem F. Paracha. The front page article in the now defunct “Muslim” noted Saint John Paul’s “call for love, peace and unity of mankind.” These were the same words I heard sitting a few feet away, with my newly arrived wife, from the stage at the Mall during Pope John Paul’s first visit to US in 1979.
Through his superb skills Sir Gilbert Levine brought the saintly spirits alive to the delight of the large audience once again in the majestic DAR Constitution Hall on May 5, 2014.