Readers of this blog know that I like to travel. I've been to about 30 countries and every continent except Antarctica. However, like most people in the West, I had never been to the tiny island nation of Nari. Recently I had a chance to visit this little-known country.
Because of its unusual customs, Nari is closed to most foreigners, but I had a professional contact, Ila, who agreed to sponsor my visit and be my guide. After a connection in Delhi, I arrived by plane, and upon stepping off the jetway I immediately felt very out of place. It was not jet lag. The reason why will be clear in a moment.
Religion is one reason that Nari is the way it is. 99% of the people on Nari adhere to the religion of Malsi, a poorly-understood sect (some would say a cult). The word "malsi" is difficult to translate, but a rough equivalent in English is "lack of inhibitions". (There are a few people on Nari who do not follow Malsi, but rather the Iahab faith, but they are unfortunately mistreated and generally persecuted.)
Malsi is hard for outsiders to understand. Adherents must engage in prayer rituals, which take place five times a day, where they face South and silently reflect on their inhibitions and work to overcome them. They must make a pilgrimage to a neighboring island, called Accem, at least once in their life. During one month each year (Nadamar), devotees eat constantly throughout the day, gorging themselves on the local fruits, which include nolem and etad. I was not there during Nadamar, but I still found the nolem and etad delicious, and much better than most fruit we could get here in North America.
But the most outstanding aspect of Malsi -- the one that everybody wants to know about -- is that believers largely reject Western notions of clothing. It's hard to be delicate about this, so I'll just say it: on Nari everybody walks around naked nearly all the time. Well, almost naked -- the belly button is always covered with a small round adhesive patch. Now you understand why I felt out of place. Old and a bit overweight, I didn't really want to follow the local custom. Any my navel is probably my best feature.
Since Nari is a tropical island, the weather makes the lack of clothing feasible. In Nari it is almost always 25 degrees C (77 degrees Fahrenheit), and the sun shines many hours during the day. Narians have a beautiful golden-bronze skin from their constant exposure to the sun, and most of them look extremely healthy. Needless to say, there are no tan lines.
When my guide Ila met me at the airport, I observed, as I stepped off the plane, that nearly everyone produced a small, colorful bag. Sitting on the benches throughout the airport, the Narians took off their clothes with athletic grace, and placed them in the bag, as I gaped in astonishment. Most were now barefoot, although some still wore their native sandals.
In my Western clothes (a t-shirt and shorts), I felt very much out of place. Indeed, as Ila (totally naked except for his belly-button patch) and I walked through the airport, I felt stares and disapproving glances from all sides. Ila laughed at my discomfort. "It's alright," he said. "We're just not used to many Westerners here. People look at you ... they know you do not follow Masli, and they are offended. But no one will hurt you." I felt reassured, but as we entered the parking lot, a man spit at my feet and then tried to pull my t-shirt off. Ila intervened and exchanged a few words with the man, and he went away, cursing. Ila apologized profusely.
Ila explained that one of the tenets of Malsi is that all people have malevolent inhibitions that must be overcome to achieve enlightenment. Their prophet, Dammahum, discovered this in the 6th century, and ever since, the Narians have followed his teachings. At an early age, children are taught to be outgoing and not shy. They are encouraged to take pride in their bodies. As part of this, clothes are regarded as useful only in the rare bouts of very cold weather, or for doing tasks that might be dangerous if uncovered, such as construction.
The navel is the exception. Narians regard the belly button as the seat of the soul, and hence it is only bared in the presence of extremely close friends and lovers. "It is the most intimate thing," Ila explained. "I can still remember the first time I saw my wife's navel. It was the most beautiful and tender moment of my life."
I was curious about how Narians dealt with some obvious problems. For example, did people really want to sit directly on chairs where other people had recently been sitting, naked? Wouldn't it be unhygienic? I quickly learned that Narians had developed solutions to almost every objection I had. For example, in Narian movie theaters and other public auditoriums, there are always dispensers on the wall that provide a small soft cloth that one places on the seat before
sitting down. At the end of the event, these cloths were placed in a bin for wash and reuse. No one seemed to find this the slightest bit unusual.
We took a taxi to Ila's house, where I met his wife Mayram and his children. I have to admit feeling embarrassed when Ila's wife hugged me and unclothed parts of her jiggled against me. Seeing me blush, Mayram laughed. "You take off clothes, and go native!" she said. I apologized and said I was used to my own customs.
As part of my visit, I had agreed to visit a Narian university, where I would answer questions about the West. Very few Narian students have ever been to a Western country and they were puzzled about various aspects of life there. Perhaps not surprisingly, most questions focused on clothing. But it was not our custom of wearing clothes in public that had them interested; it was the way the West treated women and men differently.
"Why," I was asked, "do Westerners subjugate their women by forcing them to wear items of clothing that conceal their breasts?" I explained that breasts are erogenous zones, and in the West we feel it is best that these be covered in public. "Then why do you not insist that the chests of men also be covered? Do not your men have nipples, too?"
I struggled for an answer. "Nakedness of women's breasts is ... uhh... distracting," I said. "Men would focus on sex and not get any work done. If women wear tops, then we can focus on them as people, without the distraction of sex."
"So you are saying that Western men are unable to control their sexual impulses?" Everyone giggled. "Not exactly," I replied, although I had to concede that sexual harassment was indeed a problem in many countries.
"Tell us, is it actually illegal for women to go topless in North America? You would put your women in jail for such a normal thing?" I was asked. I had to concede that, although it is now technically legal in Ontario for women to go topless, this was still not the case for most jurisdictions in Canada and the US.
"And even in Ontario, what would happen to a woman who walked around without a top?" I was asked. I was forced to admit that they would often not be treated respectfully and that much social pressure would be brought to bear on them to cover up. Some women might even be attacked and beaten up. I heard a murmur of disapproval go through the room. Many students were shaking their heads at the backwardness of my society.
Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convince the Narian students that Western clothing was not a tool designed to subjugate women.
At the end of the event, I asked some Narian students about their navel patch. They seemed astonished that Western women would brazenly display their belly button in public (and indeed, Ila explained that there was a thriving trade in underground pornography in Nari, where Western women are shown in bikinis). "But aren't you afraid of someone seeing your soul?" they asked. I had to explain that many Westerners think the soul is an immaterial thing that one cannot see. They all laughed at that. "How could you possibly be so sure that an immaterial thing exists?" they asked. I could see their logic.
As I left Nari, I felt like my ideas about social behavior had been turned upside-down. Although I didn't agree that Western clothing was just a tool to subjugate women, I had to admit that our apparel is probably nothing more than a social convention, not a code ordained by a god or by nature. Perhaps our clothing rules are rooted in custom and tradition, and not on any actual rational or moral basis.
The Narian navel patch is as incomprehensible and foreign to us as Western clothing is to them.
I don't think I will visit Nari again, but it did make me think.