One of the things that made me feel OK about flying to Damascus in November of 2003 was the assurance that we were under the protection of the Grand Mufti of Syria. He had received the Pope on a recent visit, and his son, Dr. Salah Kuftaro, was director of the largest Muslim social service organization in the country. Once in Damascus, we learned Dr. Kuftaro had invited us to be guests at the Abu Nour Mosque. I rushed off to the souk Thursday night to buy some elegant head scarves for the women in our group. We were told to dress as if we were “…going to church”. Not so easy. Our peace pilgrimage was all about travel to a remote desert monastery for interfaith dialog. We were asked to bring just what we needed. Lowell came up with a blazer and tie. Shabda wore his silk Indian shirt. Elias dressed in a dignified black mock-turtle neck sweater and a jacket, and the women scrambled for lipstick, city shoes, and a skirt.
We filed into the VIP area of the very large mosque where our host greeted us with affection: “I can’t say you are welcome here, because you are in your very home! There is a lot in common between each of us. I think the most important thing that joins us is the mysticism of Sufism.”
From my seat in the high gallery where the women sat behind a glass wall and listened with headsets to the simultaneous translation from Arabic, I could see the men way below. My husband and Elias, our leader, were seated next to the elderly Grand Mufti. More than one thousand men sat before them. After the Friday prayers and a short talk, Elias spoke:
“We have come to break through this wall that is being built between the people of the West and the people of the Muslim world. We have been welcomed with kindness & hospitality even though my country has not been kind in its policy toward Syria. …The simple fact that you receive us with such generosity is a great strength of soul and character that is stronger than any weapon of war. Please know that your kindness is… evidence of living Islam”. (The word Islam comes from salaam, and means, “the way of peace.”)
I looked into the faces of the Syrian women near me. They smiled back and nodded. Many were in tears. I was stunned to be part of this brave diplomacy.
“To conclude… to protect our children we must do everything we can to break through the masks that are being painted on our faces. When we truly meet each other, we will have Peace. Let nothing stop us from getting to know each other. Shukran. (thank you).”
It was as if the great mosque had become a table of a thousand candles and the women of East and West kept lighting and re-lighting one another as our group of seven were swept into the reception room. Elias received an engraved plaque. I once learned in Morocco the common gesture among women who have prayed together, so I began kissing warm cheeks and quietly repeating: as-Salaam Alaikhum. They seemed to appreciate the contact, even though Syrian Sufi women tend to be reserved.. Wa’laikhum as-Salaam, they whispered back.
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“Before the tongue can speak, it must have lost the power to wound.”
– Peace Pilgrim