I walk to class, leaving my pre-planned handouts at Duplicating. There, the shadows of brown and black faces in the hallway, many veiled in hijab.
Over a hundred languages and cultures on our campus. Worlds of words.
“Anyone ever seen or heard of a Haka? In any context?” I start.
A student says he saw it on TV before a Rugby game.
Another says, “I think the Māori people do it?” Yes, the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand.
“There was the time Jason Momoa did it before the Aquaman premiere. Remember?”
Some smiles. “Yeah, it was kind of like a “flash haka mob” because suddenly these big looking guys in suits were chanting like warriors, including his kids.”
I’m into it. “I saw that! I zoomed in on his 12 year old daughter. Watching a girl stomping, so focused, made me want to yell with her. Then of course I zoomed out to enjoy the whole spectacle.”
“Because Jason Momoa.” Laughter. Eyes light, some roll.
“It’s done to prepare for war, or to commemorate important transitions like a wedding or a death.” A student looks up from his phone. “I just did a quick search, and that’s what it says.”
I calm my voice a pause, ask, “Has everyone heard what happened over the weekend in New Zealand?” A few shake their heads. “Can someone summarize what they know so far?”
Fifty praying Muslims murdered by a white supremacist. A Friday, a time when Muslims and their families pray together. Two mosques. Dozens in the hospital. He’s Australian but went to New Zealand to do this. He wrote a 70-something page manifesto blaming Muslims for everything. [I will not read it or give him or his hate any of the attention he wants.] He praised Donald Trump as a symbol of white supremacy. The man livestreamed his rampage.
I look at my Somali student in hijab sitting against the window. Brown eyes widen then squint. She turns toward the window, starts writing in her notebook.
A cohort of young Latinas in the back are whispering. Sometimes, I have learned, one of them is translating for the others, from English to Spanish.
“As a response to this tragedy, the news has started posting hakas around New Zealand and Australia.” I load news clips onto the computer. “I’d like us to watch two hakas.”
Before I click play, “This one is called Tika Tonu, and it is taught to adolescent boys to prepare them for challenges and the need to persevere in their lives. Some of the words mean, ‘what is right is always right.’”
This haka, a beachside full of barrel-chested, boisterous Australians. Eyes bulge, tongues thrust, muscles twitch and pound. Thunder. The place is called Surfer’s Paradise.
We watch. We swell with silence.
The second haka is by a guy in a baseball cap and hoodie, white tube socks and white workout shoes, one untied. He quietly breaks off of a small group of locals paying homage at the Al Noor mosque site. He uses a walking stick branch and pours his warrior haka out onto the street, a few feet from the police-tape.
He chants and yells towards what we imagine is the mosque. He stomps and beats his chest and thighs, sounds out, KA Ma-teh KA Ma-teh. His open fingers and hands shake. As his chanting subsides, his right hand still quakes at his side. I feel my hands quivering too, as when my whole person joins the stream of prayers for healing over a sick friend.
Paga is the Hebrew word for this type of intercession. To take something violently by force; to strike and hit the mark. It is lightning—both solid and gas, human and supernatural—the same form Jesus took standing on the Mount of Transfiguration. Lightning rod truth.
We sit for a minute. A few students gulp. One wipes their eyes. I ask to move our seats into a circle. I think of surfers who paddle out to sea in memorial of lost ones. Like those at Surfers Paradise. I can tell by body language, we have moved from watching to bearing witness.
“What did these two hakas make you feel? Any observations?”
One student says quietly, into the circle. “It’s an act of solidarity.” Slow nods.
A student who has yet to share out loud this semester raises her hand. Shy eyes and voice, shaky English.
“The group one…it make me feel the…power.” She half sighs, pushing out more words.
“But the one by the man. It feel…different. I can feel the pain.”
Gutting, guttural, the meaning of compassion—to move our intestines.
I’m wiping tears with one hand, the other a fist at my thigh. “This makes me think: what, in our own subcultures, do we do as our form of haka? As signs of solidarity, of putting it all out there with our bodies and emotions?”
I’m asking this of myself. Where is my version of haka? Who can teach me, a hyphenated American, an in-betweener of cultures, a way to stomp and yell as an acceptable response to grief in this space, on this soil?
“If anyone who is Muslim or was raised in a Muslim home would like to share anything, please do.”
Mohammad raises his hand. “It is illegal in Afghanistan, and some parts of Pakistan and India, but there is a type of Muslim leaders who meet and chant some lines together. First quiet. Then they get louder and louder. They use their whole bodies to start yelling until there is chaos. Some of the men end up going to hospital.”
“Is it a form of prayer?” I ask.
Another says thoughtfully, “When I play sports, I put it all out there.” We talk more about this. How sports do unite diverse groups of people. I have felt that in college football stadiums, hugging strangers in the bleachers at the Oakland Coliseum when we watched Rickey Henderson steal his 939th base and break the world record. I recommend A League of Their Own to those who like learning from movies, to see the power of women playing professional baseball in America, a way to unite a country as the men fought in World War II.
A dancer, thick black wavy hair shielding most of her face and neck, pulls one knee up in her seat. I can imagine her tying on dance slippers in that position. Tilting her chin, “I don’t practice the Muslim faith anymore. I was raised that way, but being born right around 9-11, it was too hard being stereotyped all the time.”
She’s choosing her words. “I’m emotional seeing this. In eighteen years, this is the first time I have seen people offer compassion in public to the Muslim community.”
How do we make and share our own “hakas”? What would it mean to us, each other?
I used to think when our amygdalae are triggered, our animal brain responses to threat are only: fight or flight. A scientist corrected me, “Think about any catastrophe. Humans don’t just fight or flee. They also gather.” Many people find each other. We rush together; we go where there is need. We do, don’t we?
Fight, Flight, Flock
The nearest Sunday in 2012 after Trayvon Martin was murdered, a northern California church filled with Berkeley friends showed up, all wearing dark hoodies. A picture on Facebook showed dozens standing in a circle, presumably praying for Trayvon’s family, the neighborhood, our country. Or maybe—probably—it was not the time for [only] words. They stood in that gap. Dilated time. Slow motion animal brains reaching out.
What is right is always right.
The opposite happened at the church I went to that Sunday. No mention, no space or time to dilate. (I know and understand it’s not everyone’s responsibility to wear hoodies or keep current with news or or or. I get it. It still stings.) A sufficient reason I am stepping away from institutionalized church is that these “F” words are treated as that. Too raw, inappropriate, vulgar.
In the pews, animal movements get minimized, sanitized.
Ten months later in the same year, when Sandyhook happened, I went to the nearest Sunday service hoping desperately that this time will be different. They’ll say something. We’ll have corporate prayer. Not everyone could empathize with a young black man being racially profiled, stalked and shot dead. [Politics and Pulpits—sigh] But everyone agrees on the intrinsic tragedy of murdered kindergarteners and first graders.
Again, no mention. Worship music filled the front of chapel. I turned to the sides, to behind, to find anyone. Sharon, a first grade teacher, near me. We held hands and wept. This was church, the holy moment for me.
My animal brain was activated then, as it is by Christchurch. This gut reaction feels right, but it is not given enough room to move, to do enough inside of our bodies, to let our guts decide. In other words, it is not time yet to become rational again.
Not surprisingly, when Christians came to the Māori in the 19th century, the Māori greeted and honored them with hakas. As the missionaries converted the indigenous people, they “suggested” the Māori replace their “pagan” hakas with more appropriate expressions, hymns.
Hymns instead of Hakas. Why not honor haka as hymn?
The Māori Council commissioned a haka for the victims of Christchurch last week. A couple of the lines say:
E oho, kia tika rā (Wake up, be true!)
Ko au, Ko koe, ko koe, ko au, ko tāua e (I am you, you are me, this is us)
If Paga—violent intercession, something Jesus embodied—is too “out there” for the Church, then I can’t count on the nearest Sunday to go There with me. I want to find a flock that will. I want to wake up, be true. To get close to the ground, elemental.
Who will teach one to me? Who will bear witness when my body can’t hold it in?
A helpful BBC article about Haka (where they come from, what they’re for, who can do them, with the full lyrics of the haka written for Christchurch):