The Abu Nour Mosque, Damascus

(See part I under “November, 2009”)

I wanted ordinary street crossing. Cars stop, you cross safely in front of them. Here you thread between cars moving 25 mph or so. Not just the would-be matadors. Everybody. I stood on the inside of a scarf-headed grandmother and stepped when she stepped. We both turned a shoulder to the traffic as it zoomed past on both sides. We found the middle of the street. There seemed less than twelve inches between the hand that covered my heart and the side mirror of the car that passed. I worked on my breath so as to move purposefully, but the adrenalin was pumping and I couldn’t trust myself to be in charge of my limbs.  Reaching the sidewalk was a victory – We’re alive! I’m alive! I restrained the impulse to hug her for saving my life. This scene repeated after I bought 4 bunches of spinach, 2 carrots, 2 leeks and a kohlrabi – all for $.42 from the outdoor market.

RAMADAN: In the late afternoons I sat writing in my comfortable corner room with windows on two sides.  The hot sun was horizontal, held behind buildings, as all of Damascus focused a swallow of water to break the dry thirst, a sweet date to start up the collective digestion.Taxi drivers were grouchy and impatient (better to walk between now and sunset); Minutes ticked by toward darkness and tables laden with lamb and chicken and steaming vegetables, fruits, cheeses, bread and sweets.At exactly 4:40 on the clock, dusk arrived and a loud canon was fired, somewhere nearby, to signal the end of the Ramadan day. Then began the call to prayer from every mosque: ALLAH HO AKBAR! Tower by tower, green neon light lit up the minarets. Prayer and feasting began. It would have been good to be invited to a Ramadan meal, but it never happened. We’ve been made welcome, but not embraced. There may be anger and suspicion behind the good manners. After all, our government has given this land the humiliating title: “Axis of Evil”. To these people, proud of their history as one of the oldest cities in the world, that’s insulting.In the fast-breaking hours the streets were deserted, shops closed until 8:00 when the shopping began every evening during the month-long holiday. Families with strollers, groups of girls with linked arms, young men in twos – or trailing their large families – turned out and strolled the shops with the intention of buying something. There were sock, watch, and popcorn vendors in the middle of the walking areas. Corn-on-the-cob.  In the souk you could buy a forged damascene sword, beautiful children’s clothing, a hooka, prayer beads and the latest in fashionable covering scarves and modern clothing. I never discovered when the party stopped. By 10 pm I was headed for my room. Business was still open. Then there was a canon at 3:30AM, to wake the city, to give enough time to prepare food and pray and have a big meal before the sun rose.

One of the things that made me feel OK about going to Syria was the assurance that we were under the protection of the Grand Mufti of Syria. What a name! Who could that be? The man who received the Pope on his recent visit, had invited us to be guests at the Abu Nour Mosque for the Jumma (Friday) prayers. We were met in the VIP room and given a stunning welcome by Sheik Salah (Dr.) Kuftaro, head of the largest Muslim social service organization in Syria, son of the Grand Mufti, , and a Nakshabandi Sufi as well. He spoke to us with affection: “I can’t say to you  – you are welcome – because you are in your very home! There is a lot in common between each of us.

about to go into the Mosque

I think the most important thing that joins us is the mysticism of Sufism.” After he spoke, the men were escorted out and joined him on the dais on either side of his father, while the women were led upstairs to a glassed-in gallery with plush chairs and simultaneous translation headsets. The Mufti spoke commentary on a subject from Qur’an, then introduced Elias, our group leader,  to the thousand plus men seated on the vast carpet, 3 floors down from our seats.  I could see him clearly, and Shabda, in his yellow hat and shirt. Elias expressed how happy we were to be there and apologized to everyone there on behalf of the American people.  ~ 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 peace.)

view from the women's VIP seats

We observed the scene and listened to this amazing speech being simultaneously translated into Arabic. I looked around at the faces of the Syrian women near me. They smiled back and nodded. Several of us were in tears. I thought of this as enormous, on the scale of my life-experiences, felt overjoyed to witness this message of peace.

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 kept lighting and re-lighting one another as we were led to the VIP area where Elias received an engraved plaque. I learned in Morocco to copy what’s done among Muslim sisters who have prayed together, so I began kissing warm cheeks and quietly repeating: As-Salaam Aleikim.

Elias receives plaque

Since the women are conservative here, it was a strong gesture on my part, but they seemed to appreciate the contact. Wa’leikim As-Salaam, They whispered back.

I want to wake up in Damascus with its 3:30 AM Ramadan canon (fired somewhere near the hotel, in the middle of the city – as an alarm clock!), Damascus with its pedestrian insanity, cheap vegetables and blocked internet reception for AOL. I am fond of our hotel – the Al Majed – where they make special day-time vegetable meals for me, where the fourth floor mysteriously floods at night; Damascus, with  its safe-to-walk-at-night streets; its kind citizens who said to us many times, You are from America? You are most welcome!