Spir­i­tual jour­ney on a mo­tor­bike

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Jeremy Kroeker is a Men­non­ite with a mo­tor­cy­cle. When his seem­ingly un­flinch­ing faith in a Chris­tian world­view be­gins to shift, Kroeker hops on his bike to seek an­swers from another per­spec­tive. Af­ter ship­ping his ride to Europe, Kroeker dis­cov­ers that the ma­chine wob­bles back and forth worse than his own opin­ions about spir­i­tu­al­ity. Still, he car­ries on, os­cil­lat­ing through Europe — Ger­many, Aus­tria, Croa­tia, Al­ba­nia — and into the Mid­dle East — Tur­key, Syria, Le­banon and, ul­ti­mately, Iran. The fol­low­ing is ex­cerpted from Through Dust and Dark­ness: A Mo­tor­cy­cle Jour­ney of Fear and Faith in the Mid­dle East by Jeremy Kroeker.

The day’s sec­ond call to prayer car­ried on a howl­ing wind, reach­ing me through the en­gine noise be­fore fad­ing as I rode out of range. I shud­dered. For the mo­ment, the cool green of the Euphrates River Val­ley in Syria pro­vided shel­ter from the storm, but all around me it looked as if God had cho­sen this space and time to dump out his vac­uum cleaner bag. I looked up and no­ticed a small patch of dull blue sky di­rectly above me. That, too, would soon dis­ap­pear.

Plas­tic bags lit­tered the land­scape be­tween ghostly towns, des­per­ately cling­ing to what­ever veg­e­ta­tion they could find to avoid get­ting car­ried off into Tur­key, and sand drifted across the road like snow in a Cana­dian bliz­zard. The grit that ric­o­cheted off my vi­sor and sil­ver hel­met sounded like the static on an AM ra­dio sta­tion dur­ing an elec­tri­cal storm. De­spite the fact that ev­ery inch of my body was cov­ered with pro­tec­tive mo­tor­cy­cle ap­parel, a thick layer of dust coated my skin. I strug­gled to breathe. My eyes wa­tered, the tears cre­at­ing streaks of mud that ran down my cheeks and into my tan­gled red beard.

I could see the han­dle­bars and in­stru­ment panel on my mo­tor­cy­cle. The speedome­ter in­di­cated forty kilo­me­tres per hour. Be­yond that, I could just make out two dot­ted lines on the grey road be­fore me. That was my world.

But then, my path was ob­scure on a grander scale as well. I had never in­tended to visit Syria in the first place. At some point on my jour­ney I lost the way, and I con­tin­ued now with­out a guide, with­out di­rec­tion. With­out pur­pose.

Out of the cor­ner of my eye, I no­ticed the plod­ding sil­hou­ettes of a camel herd, stoic or obliv­i­ous to the desert’s wrath. Then the storm, hav­ing given fair warn­ing, blot­ted out ev­ery pe­riph­eral thing with an abra­sive cloud of chok­ing dust. I should have lis­tened to the warn­ing. Then again, if I had heeded warn­ings in the first place I never would have left home.

The Greek moun­tains ended pre­cisely at the bor­der with Tur­key. My pass­port slid back and a forth a few times to a worker on the other side of the glass be­fore it had all the cor­rect exit stamps, but it was rou­tine. Soon I was back on my bike, rid­ing across a nar­row bridge over the Mar­itsa River. The river be­gins its jour­ney in the moun­tains of Bul­garia. It spills even­tu­ally into the Aegean Sea, where it mixes with wa­ter that flows from nearly ev­ery coun­try on earth, but at the point where I crossed, it’s a di­vid­ing line.

Maybe the wa­ter doesn’t quite di­vide con­ti­nents — that task is left to the Bosporus in Is­tan­bul — but it de­lin­eates po­lit­i­cal ter­ri­tory, at least. Cross­ing the bridge meant that I had ar­rived in the Mid­dle East. That’s what my map said, any­way.

The river marks a tran­si­tion of cul­tures, too. In a way, it stands be­tween the Chris­tian­ity of Europe and the Is­lam of Mid­dle East, but in to­day’s world the lines be­tween re­li­gions are not as crisp as the banks of some river. In fact, it was way back in Al­ba­nia that I had heard my first Mus­lim call to prayer of the trip.

Even so, cross­ing that bound­ary meant some­thing to me.

Flags at the mid­point of the bridge marked the spot where I ac­tu­ally left one coun­try for another. There on one side was the blue-and-white Greek flag with a white cross, and the red-and­white Turk­ish flag with its white star and cres­cent was on the other. Pri­mary colours and re­li­gious sym­bols, they all stretched out in a cold wind that day, snap­ping and tug­ging at white flag­poles.

It was the mid­dle of Oc­to­ber and I was bun­dled with in­su­lat­ing lay­ers be­neath my mo­tor­cy­cle rid­ing gear, in­clud­ing an elec­tric vest that plugged into my bat­tery with a long wire.

When I got to Tur­key I had to get an en­try visa and buy insurance for the mo­tor­cy­cle. It felt like the first proper bor­der cross­ing of the trip, even though I had al­ready passed through half a dozen coun­tries or so in the last two weeks.

I had shipped my bike from Canada to Ger­many. We had flown in on the same plane, the bike and I, and as I faced the carousel in Frank­furt, wait­ing for my checked bag­gage, I snick­ered at the thought of a KLR650 drop­ping down the con­veyor belt. In­stead, I had to get my bike from a cargo build­ing the next day.

The Ger­man cus­toms staff cleared my bike with stag­ger­ing swift­ness. The echo of the last rub­ber stamp to thump my pa­per­work had scarcely faded by the time I laid hands on my KLR.

Since then I had been in nearly con­stant mo­tion to ar­rive here, at the fron­tier of another con­ti­nent. And yet, as I rode into Tur­key, ev­ery­thing looked fa­mil­iar. There was a flat plain of brown grass pressed down by the wind, and ev­ery so of­ten a small town be­side the road. I might have mis­taken the land­scape for the Cana­dian Prairies, ex­cept there were mosques where rinks ought to be.

The road was straight and wide, al­low­ing me to cover a lot of ground. I could have eas­ily made it to Is­tan­bul that same day, but there was no rush. The pa­per­work I needed for the next leg of my jour­ney wasn’t ready. It was there, in Is­tan­bul, that I needed to col­lect a visa for Iran.

Why I had cho­sen to ride a mo­tor­cy­cle from Ger­many to Iran was a bit of a mys­tery, even to me. When peo­ple asked, I gen­er­ally gave re­hearsed an­swers. Iran is rich in his­tory, I’d say. The hos­pi­tal­ity of its peo­ple is worl­drenowned. I wanted to see for my­self the na­tion that had been so vil­i­fied in the news in or­der to for­mu­late my own opin­ion. Af­ter all, it was the sum­mer of 2007 when I had de­cided to go, and I had left a few months later, in Oc­to­ber. Back then, the pres­i­dent of the United States, Ge­orge W. Bush, was in the lat­ter half of his fi­nal term, and he was us­ing some pretty in­cen­di­ary lan­guage re­gard­ing Iran’s nu­clear am­bi­tions. If the po­lit­i­cal vit­riol be­tween Iran and the West were to get any worse, then the win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to visit might soon slam shut. Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, th­ese were only par­tial truths.

The fact is there was some­thing else about Iran that tugged at my heart. It was the idea of vis­it­ing a theo­cratic na­tion. A na­tion ruled by God. (Maybe that’s why my visa ap­pli­ca­tion was tak­ing so long.)

I was raised in a Men­non­ite fam­ily, so the no­tion of God fac­tored promi­nently in my youth. I was born in the same Manitoba town that au­thor Miriam Toews fic­tion­al­ized (slightly) in A Com­pli­cated Kind­ness. In that book, an angst-rid­den char­ac­ter called Nomi says, “Men­nos are dis­cour­aged from go­ing to the city, forty miles down the road, but are en­cour­aged to travel to the re­motest cor­ners of Third World coun­tries with bar­rels full of Gideon Bibles and hair­nets.” Quite right.

We weren’t the Men­non­ites that peo­ple usu­ally think of when they hear the word. That is to say, we weren’t stereo­typ­i­cal. Yes, my hand still wraps more nat­u­rally around a shovel than it does the han­dle on a brief­case, but I did not grow up on a farm. No one in my fam­ily drove a buggy. None of us wore black sus­penders or grew funny beards (ex­cept for my dad, but that was in the seven- ties, when ev­ery­one had funny beards). It’s just that we sub­scribed to the par­tic­u­lar brand of con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian the­ol­ogy preached by the Men­non­ite church.

Then, when I was eight years old, my fam­ily moved to an even more ex­clu­sive Chris­tian com­mu­nity on the cam­pus of a Bi­ble col­lege in Saskatchew­an. There I at­tended a Chris­tian ele­men­tary school, a Chris­tian high school, and fi­nally a Chris­tian col­lege where I learned to think crit­i­cally back to pre­de­ter­mined con­clu­sions. Could any­one have been more in­doc­tri­nated into a Chris­tian phi­los­o­phy than me? An­swer: no.

So I con­sid­ered God a lot. In fact, for years I thought about lit­tle else. Re­cently, though, I had strug­gled to de­fine my con­cept of the Di­vine. More ac­cu­rately, I had stopped think­ing about it al­to­gether. There were too many unan­swer­able ques­tions. Too many dif­fer­ing points of view that seemed equally invalid. The last time I ex­am­ined my faith, I felt it was ju­ve­nile. I stopped at the brink of tossing it all away in favour of a ma­ture at­ti­tude to­wards life — one with­out imag­i­nary friends. I bought books by Christo­pher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but I lacked the courage to read them all the way through. The tim­ing wasn’t right for those ideas. I put them on the shelf for later, along with a Bi­ble that I hadn’t opened in years. That’s where I left it all, un­fin­ished books on the shelf, and God on the edge of my mind.

Though I failed to process any of this be­fore mak­ing my de­ci­sion, at least on some level I must have hoped that a jour­ney to Iran, a na­tion ruled by God, would pro­vide clo­sure. Maybe it would even pro­vide the cat­a­lyst I needed to fi­nally aban­don God. If noth­ing else, it would force the sub­ject of faith to the fore­ground.

EX­CERPTED WITH PER­MIS­SION FROM THROUGH DUST AND DARK­NESS: A MO­TOR­CY­CLE JOUR­NEY OF FEAR AND FAITH IN THE MID­DLE EAST BY JEREMY KROEKER. AVAIL­ABLE AT PAGES BOOKS ON KENS­ING­TON, OWL’S NEST, SHELF LIFE BOOKS, CHAP­TERS, INDIGO AND COLES; PUB­LISHED

BY RMB/ROCKY MOUN­TAIN BOOKS.

Rocky Moun­tain Books

Jeremy Kroeker, au­thor of Through Dust and Dark­ness, hopped on his mo­tor­cy­cle to seek an­swers about faith from another per­spec­tive.

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