Ahlin: Sharing civilization (plus a personal note)

When I awakened to my radio on a recent Saturday, NPR host Scott Simon was interviewing Karim Wasfi, a conductor and cellist primarily working in his home country, Iraq.

A world-renowned musician, he made a conscious decision to stay in the severely damaged nation, which still suffers acts of war and terrorism. Indeed, listeners learned he often takes his cello to areas turned to rubble by car bombs. In the destruction, he plays what he calls “spontaneous compositions.” At times he takes other musicians along to the destroyed sites and they play a concert of sorts.

The most poignant moment in the interview came as Wasfi told of a girl running towards him and hugging him when he finished playing at a Baghdad location. When he asked what the hug was about, she said, “Thank you for sharing civilization with us.”

I sat up in bed. What a concept: Sharing civilization. It was as if an important—and missing—component of life in the world we know today had found a voice. Emphasizing the impact of his words, Wasfi played a spontaneous composition, meditative, soul-filling music that moved me to tears.

That thought—sharing civilization—also sent me looking for words written by the twentieth-century philosopher Will Durant (who with his wife Ariel received the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Literature for an 11-volume work titled, “The Story of Civilization”). His words underscore why sharing civilization is the most important thing ordinary people do.

He wrote, “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing things historians usually record—while, on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happens on the banks.”

About Wasfi’s situation, Durant might have said civilization’s story happens atop rubble. He might also have said civilization’s story continues in clearing, rebuilding and repopulating destroyed neighborhoods.

Car bombs aren’t a problem in America, but smugness is. We seem unworried that the current angry divisions of political tribalism leak into more and more facets of community life, as if we no longer have the collective mindset to honor what is good, true and beautiful about being human. It’s almost as if we think civility and civilization are unrelated and sharing civilization is only necessary on the bank of somebody else’s river.

A personal note: It has been my honor and pleasure to write for The Forum’s op-ed pages for many years. Thank you to Jack Zaleski for getting me started, thank you to Forum personnel who are wonderful people; most of all, thank you, thank you, thank you to readers (whether “yayers” or “nayers”). I’ve decided to step away from the weekly column and the change of the calendar year seems like a good time to do so. I still will write occasionally; however, for now I’ll simply wish everyone a Happy New Year.