To Play a Violin

Originally written in 2014.

In dealing with the guilt that comes with privilege, maybe conscience is everything.

Last summer I was in Honduras for a couple weeks with Unite for Sight, a blindness prevention NGO. The last weekend there, my cousin and I backpacked on the cheap to the Mayan ruins by Guatemala. We went horseback riding through the mountains, riding through narrow passes as the land plummeted sharply to our side and gave way far below to the red currents of river valleys. Fog shrouded the dense green forests of the peaks, though they were not so high. We rode through an indigenous village where the Chohti language, one of the Mayan tongues, was still spoken. The children of the village ran up to us and sold us dolls that their families had made.

Quite all of a sudden, on the way back, an old man came stumbling out onto our trail from among the trees, carrying a threadbare sack. His face was wrinkled with age, his eyes shriveled into their darkening sockets. His veins ran thick upon his calloused, knobly hands. His jacket was worn out, and his boots were untied. As alarming as he may have looked, something about him spoke of a dignity, that though life may have dealt him misfortune after misfortune, he persevered day after day with honest labor. He took out a wooden violin from his sack, a thing of beauty that only his hands could have made. It was about two feet tall, carved with utmost care even to the finest notches on its handle.

The man said he was selling it for 250 limpiras (a scant 15 dollars), whereas in the town below the same would cost 800. He was more than right. I looked into his weathered eyes and his hardened fingers, and I would readily have paid him 2,000 limpiras if I had had any particular desire for a violin that day. And even though I did not, I did not want to offend his labor by giving him a straight no. I figured stupidly that I would turn down his offer with a low price – I didn’t want the violin anyway, but I wanted to show the man that I appreciated his art. And then I thought of my parents back home. I had never been able to stomach bargaining, and had often taken issue with my being ripped off. I imagined myself showing the violin to my mom, telling her how well I had done. “Only 10 dollars!” I would tell her. She had somewhat of a collection of African instruments that she had haggled marvelously for in the markets of Ghana. She would be proud of me, I thought. I was buying a backbreaking labor of love for a moment of vanity.

So I told him in a rush of words that I would take it for 200 limpiras. He was powerless, of course, and I think he recognized defeat from the start. He explained in a hurt voice that he had spent a day alone bending the wood into shape, getting the proper strings. I felt heartless and cruel as I looked on, only now cognizant of the situation I had put him in, but I was too vain to up my offer. Of course, that amount would suffice him for a couple weeks, and it would be a good deal for him. But that is exactly the thinking that I hate to have. Why should I treat an honest artisan with so much skill as a tourist attraction, an exquisite feature of the jungle? It’s the way of the world.

I knew at that moment an unbearable guilt, and I wanted to tear myself away. My life has been saddled by this guilt. The prep school I went to, the tuition I got, the unearned comforts of Ann Arbor. All while my father came to this country with 200 dollars and a suitcase. I haven’t worked for anything I have, and I can hardly live with myself. I feel spoiled by God. I want to earn my lot.

And therein lies the problem, as I see it now. I want to earn my lot in life; I want to deserve what I get. Yet at the same time, I hold firmly that deserve is a myth, that it is impossible to ever deserve anything. What I really want is the very thing I deem impossible. This is the kind of guilt that paralyzes me, not the kind that makes me want to work harder.

Part of faith, perhaps the most fulfilling part of faith, is that we accept what we are given, because our lot in life is divinely bestowed and apportioned. There is some Higher Being, more than the ripples of circumstance, that has dictated our provision, and it is comforting to forfeit Him discretion. I do not have such comfort.

But maybe this is naive on my part. Why can I not accept my place in the world? As we say in the Muhammadan tradition, The pens have been lifted and the ink is dry. Who am I to question His pen?

We might look to the Greek of antiquity and their yoke-and-carriage idea of fate, but I find a most elegant analogy in a ship sailing in the open waters. This is an oft-quoted passage by the Christian preacher A. W. Tozer, brought to my attention by my friend Moaz. Tozer’s ship is compelled to go wherever the wind take it. And I am only a sailor. And though my path is determined, I can move around within the bounds of the ship of my own accord. I can stand righteously at the helm or sulk in the lower chambers. One’s attitude, his conscience, is his own decision.

I have been given a ship with fortunate winds behind me, what we know as privilege in Ann Arbor’s vernacular, and I must make the most of it and play my role well. My judgement of myself, then, would rest on the answer to a particular point: do I feel guilty for what I have? If I were the old man in the jungle who had sold me his violin, how would I have looked upon Omar? I would have surely considered Omar spoiled, ignorant of hard work. I would have seen Omar as heartless, as I was that day. But maybe if I had known how guilty Omar felt about taking advantage of me, then only I might have forgiven him. Conscience is everything.

The violin that I bought from the old man lies quietly in the corner of an empty room in my house. In moments of solitude, I sometimes take up the bow and weave through the wires, plucking them with my fingers. I think about the few pencil drawings I have done in the past couple years. Drawing has been a sporadic hobby for me, and when I am happy about my work I can hang it up on my walls, take pictures of it. That old man spent two weeks of his life to craft a masterpiece, and then he had to work hard to give it all up to a spoiled American. He could never have afforded a camera.

I have a lump in my throat as I press my thumb down on the thickest wire. I have no idea how to play a violin.

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About Omar Mahmood

Omar was the Editor of the Michigan Review. He went on to be a Collegiate Network Fellow at USA Today. He is interested in better understanding human nature from various perspectives and disciplines. syedom@umich.edu