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Sarah LeVine's The Saint of Kathmandu: And Other Tales of the Sacred in Distant Lands [28 May, 2008]

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By Sarah LeVine; Beacon Press; 242 pages

Sarah LeVine’s The Saint of Kathmandu: And Other Tales of the Sacred in Distant Lands is a memoir about her 30-odd years in communities devoted to spiritual quests.  It implicitly argues that what brings people together into massive football stadiums to pray as one or as solitary worshippers in darkened Cathedrals isn’t religion—a set of prescribed doctrines—as much as faith: the need to believe in a power that can alleviate the conditions of living.

The book is divided into five chapters, ranging from the early ’70s to sometime near the present.  The locations vary from Africa and Hong Kong to Nepal and the United States.  In Nigeria, LeVine, an anthropologist, spends time with Alhajia Rabi, who is both a learned Muslim woman schooled in the Koran and the chief medical officer in the Muslim town of Kaura.  In Kathmandu, she’s taken under the wing of Guruma (the name is a title, meaning both teacher and mother), a vital woman and female Buddhist monk devoted to the cause of women’s equality in her order.

In the most poignant chapter, set in Hong Kong, LeVine befriends her Filipina maid Isabel.  Maids are the Philippine’s biggest export—they go to the farthest corners of the world to cook and baby-sit for strangers, and many spend years apart from their own children.  Isabel, it turns out, married a man who disappeared while she was pregnant with their child.

After being told by her father that he couldn’t support her any more, she flies to Hong Kong to work as a maid (LeVine was her second employer) , leaving her infant behind.  Depressed and isolated, she meets a woman who persuades her to come see Brother Mike Velarde, a local leader of the Charismatics (Christians who believe they can witness manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and in the power of miracles) .

Isabel’s faith in Velarde is clearly a way of coping with her solitude and deep unhappiness.  It’s tempting to see this as an instance of religion/faith as an escape, but LeVine situates Isabel squarely within the context of post-handover Hong Kong and after the Asian economic crisis, turning the story into a poignant reminder of the human costs of the neoliberalism that creates millionaires out of a small segment of society and cheap labor out of the remainder.

The Saint of Kathmandu is a compelling book, and it’s compassionate without condescension.  LeVine writes about strong women, and that goes a long way in shifting the paradigms through which we understand faith in the global south.

Yet, the book tends to portray matters of faith as timeless and unchanging.  LeVine is often mysterious about dates (the Hong Kong chapter is one exception, but then it’s difficult to dehistoricize Hong Kong).  The chapters on Africa and Mexico, in contrast, require a good deal of math to discern when events might have occurred.  I found myself looking for clues.  The presence of a Walkman, for instance, told me that one chapter was (presumably) set in the 1980s or early ’90s.

Given that the least historicized chapters are also set in Africa and Mexico, LeVine’s book contributes to a dangerously shallow narrative about religion and faith in those parts of the world, about people whose lives are bounded by an unchanging faith, regardless of historical events around them.

But faith is formed by politics and history, and we sacrifice real political change when we render it in ahistorical terms.  Reading about how Beatrice, in what we must assume is the late ’70s, finds out that her husband’s infidelities have resulted in her gonorrhea, it’s difficult not to ask what might happen to her faith in a post-AIDS Africa.  What might happen to Ana Maria’s faith and her attempts to alleviate poverty in her Mexican town, presumably set in the same period, in a country now torn by a neoliberal dependence on the United States?  Narratives about unchanging faith might reassure us about the unchanging nature of the world’s faithful, but it does nothing to alleviate the drastic political and economic changes they endure.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 2 May, 2008

 



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