Joyful Welcomes and Tearful Worship: A Day of Prayer with Damascus's Muslims

Friday, August 19, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

This photo of the emotional morning prayer ceremony was one of the most careful and discrete that I have ever snapped.
We saw Mohamed's handiwork long before we met him.

At the university one day last month, several fellow students showed up wearing brightly colored t-shirts with gimmicky Arabic signs screen-printed on their fronts: "Fady Roumana's pizza", "Syria forever", or the ubiquitous "No Parking, under penalty of towing" sign that we easily recognized from the city streets. In a country whose young people are obsessed with imitating our styles—and wouldn't be caught dead in a t-shirt with anything other than an English-language slogan on it—someone had finally discovered the perfect souvenir.

After a little asking around, Julian and I tracked the t-shirts back to a small screen-printing booth at the very end of the Souq Medhat Pasha. A trio of enterprising local brothers own and operate the shop, which mostly sells cheap sweatsuits and soccer outfits for kids. But last month they happened
upon a bonanza with the idea to sell Arabic-language t-shirts. Mohamed, the stubby, thinly bearded youngest brother, speaks a little French, so he does most of the selling to the smitten foreigners. The brothers have begun to amass a small fortune, 150 Syrian lira (US $3.00) at a time.

I've helped a fair amount with that. After befriending Mohamed with my rusty French and fumbling Arabic, I've been bringing a gaggle of fellow students to his shop most afternoons after class. I also bought a half dozen of the shirts to share with all my friends back home. (On their way, guys.)

Mohamed began to take a keen interest in me as our conversations ranged from clothing and commerce to language and literature, then faith and family. Last week he let me borrow a recording of the Qur'an on CD. (I can hardly understand a single word.)

After weeks of chatting over tea in his shop, yesterday Mohamed invited me to accompany him to the evening prayer at his local mosque. Eager to see what the experience might be like, I gladly obliged, and hung around as he and his brothers folded up their merchandise and shuttered the store. A friend of Mohamed's drove us nearly a half hour into Damascus's southern suburbs. The city all around us seemed poorer the further we traveled, but the mosque where we disembarked as dusk fell was an impressive, towering form, highlighted with the usual neon green fluorescent lights.

Mohamed rushed me inside the mosque's grounds to the ablution courtyard. As the call to prayer rang out, he hurriedly instructed me in the ritual ways of cleaning the feet, hands, forearms, face, ears, hair, and neck. We left our shoes by the sanctuary entrance and shuffled across the wide spread of carpets to join the ranks of followers. Trying to keep my head facing forward like the others, I peeked sideways at Mohamed, mimicking his stances, standing and kneeling and bowing in sync with him as best I could, and murmuring the few basic verses I had learned in first-year Arabic class back at Georgetown.

My teacher was in gleeful spirits as the prayer ended, apparently relishing in his triumph at having brought a bonafide Christian—but not just any Christian, an American one— to the evening's prayers. I shook hands with each of his friends as the jubilant Mohamed introduced me, and did my best to offer polite greetings as they chattered all around me. Some offered embraces; they were certainly a friendly bunch.

The celebrations did not stop there. An older, bearded shaykh and his fellow scholars led us into an antechamber of the mosque, and sat us down for tea, whereupon I was grilled in Arabic and English on all things theological (How did this graybeard speak such good English? I'm still not sure.) Was I religious? Did I attend church regularly back home? What did I think of Jesus? What is the nature of God? I have to admit that I struggled to answer the questions, particularly when the shaykh's associates asked them in Arabic.

My answers, while perhaps unintelligible, seemed to be inoffensive at least, as Mohamed and I were soon invited to the shaykh's home for dinner. As is polite here, Mohamed refused repeatedly, until the shaykh practically forced us out the door and into his VW bus, which was old enough to be mostly made of rust. This was beginning to push the limits of my comfort zone, expansive as it might be, but Mohamed reassured me with a smile and I piled in, sandwiched between two large fellows in white dishdashas and skullcaps, their beards spilling down across their chests.

The shaykh, whose soon insisted that I call him Shaykh 'Adnan, lived in a second-floor apartment nearby, its walls adorned with the usual fake gold Qur'anic verses. We sat in a circle on the floor of his salon as he passed the traditional hand-washing basin, then served tea. It was well after dark by now, and I was famished. Soon the shaykh began shuttling in and out of the kitchen (being careful never to open the door wide enough for his guests to see inside), carrying platters of food into the center of our small circle of five or six guests. His wife and daughters, who presumably prepared the food, remained silent and invisible behind the door as we chatted and munched away on traditional mezze dishes. Among the brothers (this is what they called each other), it was a sign of the greatest respect to prepare a handful of food for oneself and then, in a display of selflessness, to bring one's hand to the mouth of the man seated beside you. I was a popular target early on for these unfamiliar feedings, and drew great laughter and cheers when I awkwardly fed a mouthful of pita and baba ghanoush to Mohamed, seated at my right.

By the time dinner broke and Mohamed escorted me home to Bab Tuma in a taxi, it was well past midnight. But I got home in time to catch Julian and recount my evening's adventure to him. I also asked him to join me the next morning, when we were invited for more prayers with my new "brother" Mohamed, who could not have been happier when I had told him that I had another Christian friend who would like to join us in the morning.

* * *

This morning Julian and I met Mohamed at a large traffic circle in the center of town, from where we took a taxi toward the city's southern edge once more. At a small compound in a leafy neighborhood, Julian and I followed Mohamed through the entryway and up a set of stairs to the house's terrace, where Shaykh 'Adnan awaited, surrounded by other brothers dressed in immaculate white robes. In jeans and collared shirts, Julian and I stood out like sore thumbs among the bearded brothers, but they had no hesitation in welcoming us with an almost overwhelming hospitality.

Water, coffee, dates, and other treats were pressed upon us, along with many questions about our religious beliefs. It seemed not to matter how we answered; the young men crowded around us wide-eyed and gleeful, murmuring "ما شاء الله" (Ma sha' Allah), or "God did not will it [for me]". In this case, "it" is whatever it was that they loved about our presence—presumably our willingness to come to Syria and study Islam. (Since that's what they seemed to infer from our presence at the prayer gathering.)

After a little while Mohamed, Shaykh 'Adnan, and the others tossed aside their shoes and shuffled into the small room that formed the home's top floor. Julian and I took spots in the back as they kneeled on rattan mats and began to pray. At first it seemed fairly traditional, but soon the prayers grew louder, eyes were closed and hands raised with upward-facing palms, beseeching. Wails echoed through the small room, and by the time an hour had passed, tears were streaming down into many of the beards, which quivered among the crescendo of sobs.

Julian and I exchanged many silent looks, incredulous as much at what we were seeing as at the fact that we were being allowed to see it.

* * *

By noon, Julian and I had begged an escape and returned home. While the brothers continued with the traditional Friday worship several miles away, we rested in the midday heat in Ra'ife's courtyard, trying to digest what we had just witnessed. Neither of us has gotten far.

Frankly, we have no idea what we saw, and we find it hard to comprehend the explanations Mohamed offered to our tentative questions. The prayers had grown emotional, he said. Perhaps, but this looked like a religious experience unlike any I had ever witnessed in the stiff, WASP-y Christian tradition I knew back home. I have a lot to ponder.

Update: Back at school this week, Julian and I asked Boshra, our Arabic teacher, about the gathering we had witnessed. Julian and I recounted the story and marveled at the depth of the brothers' faith and their deep emotional attachment to it. Boshra, a veiled Muslim woman but the only Syrian I have yet met who seems to grasp "creative thinking", just shook her head. "But what does that crying mean?" Boshra asked. "Why are they crying during prayers? Is that really how you measure someone's faith?" Had the intensity that Julian and I felt in that rooftop prayer room been real, or had each brother just manufactured it in his head to convince himself and his companions of his faith? I still wonder.

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