Lesley Hazleton lives on a houseboat, wrote about cars for a decade, and also has a pilot license. A natural affinity for all vehicles, the tuk tuk or trishaw, was next on her list. During Lelsey’s stay in Colombo, I was given the opportunity of taking her around the city. We went to the Kirulapone canal for her lesson, where a friend of mine owns a tuk tuk. What with her packed speaking engagements, she didn’t have enough time to master it in a few hours. So she knows it’s a sign for her to return to Sri Lanka some day (well I think it is).
Lesley was here in January on an invitation by the Galle Literary Festival. She also spoke at many other free events in Colombo. In the week she was in Sri Lanka, she inspired people to take up this same spirit of inquiry and challenge their perceptions of religious iconic figures. In The First Muslim, she writes about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the book is considered an acclaimed biography of the prophet by both Muslims and those of other faiths. She is also known for writing about Mother Mary in Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography. By accepting those figures as human, she says we are able to deepen our understanding and relationship with them. Lesley feels we do not do justice to these icons with our over reverence. Instead of mortifying adherents, as most people would assume, her books have helped reinstate the faith of believers. She often gets mails from nuns who are grateful for making Mary (Lesley prefers to call her by her given Aramaic name Mariam) more real to them, and those who have converted to Islam after reading The First Muslim.
Lesley never intended to to write about religion and her blog is known as the ‘accidental theologist.’ A trained psychologist, she considers herself an agnostic Jew, who studied in a catholic convent and who later lived in Jerusalem as a reporter of Middle East issues. As part of her research into the Muslim world, she started reading the Quran, the process which she explores in her 2010 TED talk that went viral.
This was the talk I saw almost seven years ago, and it astounded me. It’s a speech that has inspired millions and wiped away the preconceptions so many people have of the holy book. A friend of mine, who was at her lectures, and who had memorized the Quran and even knows Arabic remarked, that Lesley’s interpretation of the verses in English, was better than any other translators or theologians he had seen.
Her newest book Agnostic A Spirited Manifesto explores why it is important to look at everything from an agnostic stance. This objectivity leaves room for both reason and imagination. When I discovered that this book was sold out, Lesley was kind enough to gift me her personal reading copy, complete with her notes. An amazingly compassionate human being, our small trips around Colombo are some of the most memorable moments I’ve spent with anyone.
Lesley is back in the US now, where that country is being shadowed by a leader who stands to rob everything she stands for. Critical inquiry, plurality of lifestyle, cultural diversity and the freedom of choice. She is busy researching for her next book. Here’s to Lesley’s efforts in bridging cultural divides and giving voice to the stories that need new story tellers.
Lots of love from everyone in Sri Lanka. Hope to see you back soon!