Sankirtana Spreads in the Land of the Arabs by Damodara Nityananda Dasa

Abdenasser’s suffered from a congenital heart condition when he was 6, but he could not receive proper treatment in his hometown. After several attempts to get good treatment, his family migrated to France hoping for better medical facilities. It was there he underwent a heart operation that saved his life. During the 1984 Paris Rathayatra, he met ISKCON devotees and decided to practice Krishna consciousness as a brahmacari, a fulltime monk.

Acaryavan Vani
Acaryavan Vani Dasa with His Holiness
Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami Maharaja

For close to a decade he stayed in the New Mayapur farm community in Paris and would go out distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books. He was initiated as Acaryavan Vani Dasa, one who completely surrenders to the instructions of the spiritual master.

The Beginning of Adventure

Abdenasser and his devotee friend Mehenni, Berbers from Islamic background of Algerian and Moroccan descent respectively, traveled extensively in Islamic countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria to take the message of Lord Caitanya to the Arabs and Berbers. Berbers are the original inhabitants of North Africa. They are distinct from the Arabs in language and culture, but they are Muslims by conversion.

Acaryavan Vani
Acaryavan Vani Dasa and Gaura Bhakta Dasa with their sangkirtana van

In November 1991, these two devotees left the New Mayapur farm in France and stopped for a program in Malaga, Spain. They were afraid of customs checks while entering Morocco since they had eight hundred books of Prabhupada hidden in the car. A customs officer asked them what was in the car. Abdenasser said something to the officers; somehow Krishna protected them and they were able to go through. They stayed one day in Ceuta, a Spanish city with lots of tourists on the north coast of Morocco. Then they drove further into a small town named Tetouan. The first day, they were chanting Hare Krishna ; some people thought they were on drugs. When Mehenni spoke to them, they were satisfied – “Yes, yes, go on chanting.” Two days later, they went to Tangier, where they met Nayanabhirama Prabhu, an American devotee who taught English there. He arranged a program at his school with about twenty students. Mehenni and Abdenasser gave an introduction to Krishna co nsciousness, and everyone asked for a Bhagavad-gita. The next day they went out to sell Prabhupada’s books. Abdenasser went to the shops, and Mehenni was on the streets. All the people they met took books. Someone even embraced Mehenni and said, “Thank you very much for bringing these books to our country.”

They sold books in shops and on the streets of Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Abdenasser states, “We met very nice people interested in Krishna consciousness. When we introduced ourselves as teachers of bhakti-yoga, they were amazed and said, “That’s what we need. Why don’t you teach it here?” From Rabat they went to Casablanca, where people had an unmistakable glint of interest in their eyes. Abdenasser had been to Casablanca the year before. He had met some Indians, and now he saw how they had progressed in chanting and reading Prabhupada’s books. After that, they went to Marrakech for a couple of days and then to Agadir on the west coast and then to Efran in the mountains. They met two young men and invited them for chanting and prasada. In the middle of kirtana one of the men stood up, started ecstatic dancing, picked up the mådaìga and started to play, and his friend followed the tune of Hare Krishna on a guitar. Abdenasser reminisces, “It was like they were former devotees who were now being woken up from slumber. They chanted and danced until one in the morning.”

Then they visited Abdenasser’s family who lived in Morocco near the Algerian border where he had more than seventy cousins. They organized Krishna conscious programs and distributed books in the shops, but were impeded due to political upheaval. With the police lurking everywhere and stopping them often to check their car, it was not easy to speak freely. So they decided to go to the Berber cities. In the city of Tizi Ouzou, Algeria, everyone spoke French and seemed favorable to Krishna consciousness. Mehenni notes, “We distributed lots of books. And from there we went to Setif, Algeria, where my parents live. They rebuked me, ‘You practice Krishna consciousness, which is not part of our faith; it’s not Islam.’ Yet, they hosted us because Abdenasser was there. They were also excited because Abdenasser was from Morocco and spoke the same language as my parents. Then my father cautioned, ‘Now it’s becoming too dangerous, so don’t talk to people about Krishna . If you do, you will get in trouble. Please don’t do it here.’ So from there we went to Bejaia. It’s another Berber city, next to the sea. We distributed lots of books. On the way we stopped at a bookstore. I offered the owner Bhagavadgita and Krishna , the Reservoir of Pleasure. He said, ‘Yes, I will buy some.’ He wanted twenty of each. I said alright. So he followed me to the car and then he wanted all the books. I could offer him only some books as we planned to distribute these books in several countries, and he was not very happy. I asked him why he wanted all the books. He said, ‘I am in charge of the Youth Hostel where these books will be loved.’ We sold him lots of copies of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Krishna , the Reservoir of Pleasure, and Coming Back.”

Into Algeria and the Middle East

In Constantine, they met the parents and siblings of a devotee from Algeria. They spoke with them for two hours about Krishna . Everyone was appreciative. Although they had a lot of contacts to visit there, they decided to leave because of the worsening political situation and moved to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. In Tunis, one shop after another received the books from them like hot cakes. They had a contact; a Tunisian Muslim lady who had visited the Paris temple a year ago for a week. Mehenni’s phone call drove her into a state of frenzy. “Please come! Please come! I want to arrange a feast and invite my parents to see you,” she said. The next day they visited her. She had a nice altar, and Prabhupada’s books. She had invited her friends who offered obeisances just like devotees and greeted with “Hare Krishna !” Mehenni and Abdenasser did a bhajana, cooked in ghee, and gave a lecture on bhakti-yoga. Everybody was in ecstasy, accepted prasada and took many books. After a week, they went back to Tunis and continued to distribute books and hold programs.

They distributed about four hundred books in these countries and had more than twenty programs. Abdenasser contends, “Krishna arranged everything – the money for our food and maintenance. People were crying in ecstasy.” They had to decide whether to establish something there – incognito, of course – or continue traveling as they were. Subsequently, they spoke about Krishna in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Abdenasser asserts, “Now we know how to share Krishna in these countries by Krishna ’s grace – what to say, how to present it. And we’re not afraid, because we know that there are prospective devotees. They are just waiting for us. When we returned to France, the devotees were surprised to hear about Muslim people chanting Hare Krishna and becoming devotees.”

Subsequently, they established an organization: Association Orientale de Bhakti Yoga (Eastern Society for Bhakti Yoga) in France to disseminate the message of Krishna consciousness in the Arabicspeaking world, particularly North Africa and also among the North African community (six million people) in France. A few French devotees have joined them and are enthusiastic to open centers in North Africa. As no non-resident devotee can stay permanently in North Africa, they resolved to create a backup team to organize regular tours there. They have also introduced Krishna consciousness to Arab students attending universities in France. They completed a translation of The Science of Self-realization that was distributed widely. Abdenasser regrets, “Most devotees shy away from spreading Krishna consciousness among the Arabs, whom they consider mere religious fanatics. Very few devotees are involved in this endeavor. We have no steady source of funding.”

A Glorious Passing Away

Abdenasser’s heart continued to give his body problems numerous times, especially in the last three years, where his health slowly deteriorated. In his last days, he resided in the United Kingdom, and although his ailments did not allow him to be actively involved in spreading Krishna consciousness, as he had done in the nineties, he still enthusiastically shared Krishna over Skype with devotees in North Africa. He would say, “Whether you like it or not, you will have to sooner or later take to Krishna consciousness, not by force but because it is the only logical recourse for the suffering soul. I actually feel blessed that I have a sort of ailment that reinforces to me all the time that this body is going to be inactive soon and hence the urgency to perfect this life.”

On December 22, 2015, he left this body few days ahead of his sixtieth year. We hope that Krishna has kindly taken him, back home, back to Godhead, to allow him to live in an eternal, youthful body, full of knowledge and bliss. But the kind of preacher that he was, it makes us feel that he is continuing his spiritual conquests elsewhere.

He would urge Muslims to engage in glorifying Allah by studying Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings of love of God. “Engaging in rituals without surrendering to the Supreme Person or remembering Him is pointless. A surrendered soul ought to incessantly chant the names of the Lord all the time and not only at certain times of the day.”

Acaryavan’s son Gaura-Bhakta Dasa fondly remembers his father, “Following his recent passing, it became clear in hearing from, and talking with his close friends, that dad’s specialty lay in his ability to please and serve the Vaiñnavas. Whenever he entertained a guest, or hosted a gathering of devotees, his hospitality was second to none. I remember him going to great lengths to satisfy those he was serving, making them feel comfortable and at ease and always being totally selfless. Even as he became increasingly disabled, he would still try to serve others by offering them maha-prasada. This personal approach to others is what made him so endearing within the devotee community and to his Moroccan family. In the last 3 to 4 years his health deteriorated rapidly, but he continued serving his beloved Gaura-Nitai deities with affection, despite numerous hospital stays, surgical procedures and the onslaught of other health conditions. This always amazed me, and I would wonder where his inner strength came from.”

We pray that Acaryavan Vani is in a transcendental body, free of suffering, and is able to chant and dance unlimitedly in kirtan, as he always wanted to.

Damodar Nityananda Dasa (Dr. Dipankar Deb) is a disciple of HH Bhakti Vikasa Swami. He is presently an Associate Professor in Electrical Engineering and the author of the book Muslim Devotees of Krishna. muslimdevoteesofkrsna.com

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