to Damascus: Part Two
by John Verlenden || Author's Links
Damascus by Night & The Umayyad Mosque
Several weeks earlier, in Hama, my wife and her friend Rochelle had been approached by a romancer of the night. Suave, well-coifed, this man had stepped from an unlit doorway whispering, "Hel-lo, shickens."
"The problem," Amjad Hussein told me, "can be traced to the French occupation of Syria and parts of Iraq."
Amjad Hussein: the man who gave the Arab world its version of D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. For four months our desks touched corners in a cell of an office in northwest Jordan.
"Until the French came, no one had seen a ch- pronounced like a sh-. Of course Arabic doesn't have either sound. But the British had already introduced ch- as in choke, causing all aspiring civil servants to learn this diphthong. Then suddenly the French Mandate came along. The new jobs demanded the new pronunciation. Things have been confused ever since."
I was thinking of these confusions as I sat at a white-linen table in downtown Damascus. A waiter in black suit had just wheeled around diffusing a breath of rosewater and before striding to the kitchen had said, "Excellent choice, sir. The shicken."
The breast arrived skinned and stretched across a molded hill of glistening raisin-rice. But I was too excited to eat. Just outside the restaurant's huge glass windows lay the world's oldest, perpetually occupied city. I paid up, eased my way out of swinging glass doors and caught up with the night just as it arrived by ambulance.
Damascus, dusty by day, shimmered red, blue, white and green courtesy of neon. A shakily amplified muezzin wailed out prayer hour, but my sidewalk's crowd kept chattering.
Who invented neon? No one. Neon is "a rare inert colorless gaseous element that occurs in air, glows reddish orange in an electric discharge" (my dictionary). Its symbol on the Periodic Table is Ne.
Natural as it is, neon never looks so exotic as when it's contorted into Arabic script. Calligraphy is the finest Arab art. Since Muslims believe that Arabic is sacred -- the Quran having been revealed in its glottal stops and aspirations -- it makes perfect sense that the artistic fiddling of God's language has occupied Muslims for fifteen hundred years. First unfurled onto paper, Arabic had been glazed onto tiles, worked into iron, and now caught in the tubes of neon.
This neon night was stained from all direction by the great Mediterranean herb, cumin. Cumin's acrid nose-twist came from down low where the commercial kitchens were located. On street level golden chickens twisted on spits behind glass, the whole case exuding char and sizzling fat. Somewhere a female chorus provided echolalia for Kazim el Saher's sincere-as-my-heart vocals. Down the four-lane street, automobile headlights flowed as if from a steam-filled tunnel. I turned and watched the sedans coursing through the gauntlet of neon, the block-long ideograms of red arrows winking on-off.
From sunken doorways -- erected for dwarves? -- wafted cinnamon-apple clouds from a hookah den.
But at street level there was Givenchy, Dior. The windows had been cleaned by a man cutting away the skin of desert dust -- with a razor, it seemed. They gleamed preternaturally. I stopped in front of a door-length Calvin Klein poster. Was it all there? Oh yes: Klein's female model with kill-to-have hair being hoisted by a naked boy-man model with kill-to-have-hair. Primitive, flawless, in glossy grays -- no briars in their wilderness.
From an adjacent doorway a turbaned tout clicked out, "Delicious mansaf right this way, sir." His arm swept up as did a red neon arrow firing into an empty flight of stairs. Mansaf, the dish that fabled Lawrence of Arabia had been offered by desert sheiks. Lamb parts scattered over rice cooked in the lamb's fat, laced with fresh yogurt.
"Thank you, but I've eaten," I said, walking on. The tout lowered his eyelids as if a button had been depressed at the center of his gown's back.
In a fit of memory, I cut short my sidewalk tour and returned to the hotel. I'd bought two Syrian shirts before supper -- combined cost, less than eight dollars. Plaid is big in Syria, huge actually. I'd bought one plaid, one tattersall made by Bashar Seif and Alsham, respectively. Sturdy shirts, richly colored, conservative in pattern, they would shred my back when I started wearing them next morning. I had to grind together their fabrics under water, with soap, using the knuckles of my hands, to rid them of the factory's finishing spray.
At my pension, everyone was watching Italy play in the world cup. I washed and hung up my shirts downstairs in the shower room then hurried to smash myself into the four by six-foot tv room. Four Koreans, one Chinese, five Syrians had locked themselves onto one large armchair and a converted bus seat. Why so many Asians in the Middle East? I'd once met a lone Korean woman, shockingly young, sitting against a Bedouin shack outside of Petra, long after tourists had cleared out. In the moonlight her face flashed a tough smile. Fingers rambled on a laptop, its cord disappearing into the shack's window. I passed by, stole a glance backward. My god, she was online. I thought to myself, 'Invest in Korea' (when the money arrives).
Six a.m. I stood in the second floor foyer. All the doors were flung open. Everyone was gone. Late the night before I'd passed through five Americans sitting on couches outside my room. One of them was saying, "I just didn't have any idea." The rest were nodding. Two groups, they'd met in Damascus by coincidence. "Have you been to the West Bank before?"
"Well, I just didn't have any idea."
Damascus is a long way from the Saudi Hejaz (Mecca, Medina). After the Damascene regent Mu'awiya named the first Muslim dynasty after his ancestor Umayya in 661 CE, Islam would never return to its Hejazi roots. Even after the Umayyad dynasty crumbled, the religious leadership moved to a new city, Baghdad. But that is another story, as is Ali's -- almost.
Ali, the last Rightly Guided Caliph, was murdered by his former comrades. His crime: dickering through a peace process with Mu'awiya. If God's on your side, why negotiate? Ali's murderers, known as Karajites, are not praised today. Their name is a euphemism for trouble. Ali, however, is more than praised, he is venerated as the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed. Moreover, he is viewed by some Muslims as the precise point where the whole religion lost its rightful path.
Shia: 'Party' of Ali. The Shiites, as Western papers prefer to print, constitute Islam's eternal minority. Forever they get to be right (about Islam's leaders following Mohammed's bloodline), as long as they don't mind being powerless -- except in Iran. Every Muslim alive is watching what happens in Iran -- now that it's been cleansed, you know. It's the closest any Muslim nation has come to reverting to the fundamentalist government that so many rank-and-filers say has never been rightly attempted.
Considering the long history of Shia insurgence, especially in recent centuries, it seemed odd that the world-famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, built by Islam's first Sunni Dynasty (the majority of believers, anti-bloodline), functions as a major Shia destination. But I get ahead of myself.
The corridors of the old walled city contain a bazaar. Unfortunately, once one has rambled the Khan al Khalili in Cairo, no other anthill of shops and spread-out blankets will do. To this day people get lost in Khan al Khalili. Great as the Khan is, my sentimental favorite is the Thursday morning Bedouin market in Al Arish on the Sinai coast, twenty kilometers from Gaza. Teams of stout Bedouin haggas place four sets of hands on each arm and begin pulling. Simultaneously they shriek and fill the space before your eyes with clove necklaces, camel bangles, hammered metal boxes designed for spirits to inhabit.
My feet kept moving through the Damascus merchants. Not one thumb pressed into the crook of my elbow.
Early. That's the truth. The mosque hadn't even opened. Then, too, I stared at its shut doors a long time before spying a sign saying, "This is not an entrance."
I walked around the corner and found a ticket office. A balding man in pressed white shirt clasped his hands on a bare wooden desk. He leaned slightly toward me, the chair creaking, and said, "Twenty minutes, sir. You may occupy yourself with Saladin's tomb." He pointed the way back outside.
Salah al Din drove out the wandering European ne'er-do-wells who had added themselves to Pope Urban's freebooters much as ticks fall onto a bear's coat -- for prompt succor. In the annals of history these people were known as the Crusaders. In Cairo, Salah al Din built the Citadel, that city's most impressive medieval monument. At Ascalon, a fortress near Gaza, Salah al Din agreed to let Richard the Lionheart's men ride out unharmed. When he liberated Jerusalem, Salah al Din spared Jewish and Christian inhabitants.
Unfortunately, this leader's clear-headed pax islammica fell apart when the man died -- so often the case when an outsider gains power. A Kurdish warlord, Salah al Din was originally asked to quell civil disturbances in Cairo. He became the hired sheriff who took over the whole town. But he was the best of his kind, a Grant and a Lee rolled into one: hell in a draw-down, wise, compassionate.
I viewed his mausoleum from twenty feet, my hands gripping a wire fence. Inside the fence the keeper sat on a bare wooden bench reading a book. No other tourist was waiting; he ignored me just the same. Ten minutes to ten. The gate sign said: 'Open 10 a.m.'
I started trudging around the walls of the mosque, acting like an ecstatic pilgrim, mouth open, arms waving out from the sides. I needed to pee.
By act of god, I found a café on the mosque's far side. Its patio sat beneath the tower where Jesus will descend on the Day of Judgement. So it is written. Or maybe it is just said. Such specific information could not have possibly been revealed to Mohammed, because the mosque was not yet a mosque during the Revelation. Who started this rumor?
Jesus is a Muslim prophet. His Arabic name is Issa. I once taught an Issa. He was a good-looking fellow, perhaps overrating his command of English. Otherwise he was a sound chap. He did his namesake honor. Kind, trying to do the right thing, Issa had fired a few emails to me. The last I heard, he was teaching English to college students although his letters were filled with errors. He's the only Jesus I've known.
I'd lucked on a Christian coffee shop, and its walls were covered with figurative and abstract art, much of it religious. Conservative Muslim theology sees figurative art as idolatrous, so you don't see many paintings in the Muslim world. This, despite the fact that the Umayyads painted wonderfully vital, often humorous, erotic frescoes on the walls of their desert qasrs during the 700's CE. Monkeys playing instruments while bears danced; women naked to the waist with huge smiles -- wonderfully lively murals. Why do religions suffer from fundamentalist meltdowns? Seems to be in the original kernel -- this according to Terror in the Mind of God, The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Juergensmeyer's book is being massively unread. He's saying, 'This is precisely where the joy gets left behind.'
While the café owner's son hosed down the wooden patio chairs, the older man fixed me a vat of coffee. In making two rounds of the art I stopped and used the restroom twice, for a sense of luxury.
Kandinsky and Malevich jumped out from the etchings and oils. Their colors, their lines: vectors projected from the future back onto canvas. The early Soviets had made a stronger impression in the northern Middle East than had the French. Americans forget about early Soviet art. Its boldness was too much for the Soviets, as well.
Ten-twenty. I walked to the mosque.
Three millennia before Mohammed's birth a pagan temple had been erected to Rimmon, or Hadad as some scholars say. Maybe the Greeks designed a conversion of the temple but the Romans took it over, probably did the actual building: Temple of Jupiter (138 CE). In 397 Theodosius, the idol-smashing Christian emperor, jammed a nave, two aisles and a transept into the temple and dubbed it: Basilica of St. John the Baptist.
Muslims stormed the city in 636, and for a while Muslims let Christians worship in half of the temple. In 708 Umayyad caliph Walid ended this coziness when he shoved an entirely new structure -- the current Great Mosque design -- within the walls of the old enclosure. At the time, local Muslim clerics had been afraid to touch the many Christian statues that lined the basilica. But Walid himself took out his sword and whacked off the head of… well, no one knows which statue came first. If it was Paul, he was thus twice beheaded.
After Walid's blow, the clerics stood around waiting for a lightning bolt to descend. When nothing happened, frenzy ensued. Racks of Eastern orthodox statues, wooden, heavily painted with eerie blue eyes took the Damascene steel.
Since those days, several Great Mosques had been destroyed by fire. The mosque I was seeing arrived after the 1893 conflagration.
Yet Christian militarists think their One True God doesn't show his colors enough. They simply aren't looking in the right places. Even as I walked through its gates, I was wondering if the place might not torch up.
Fires raise embarrassing questions. How, for instance, had the head of John the Baptist escaped each time? Indeed, his head was here -- or was claimed to be. Yahya (John) the Baptist is a Muslim prophet, slightly predating Issa, of course.
But why does John/Yahya's head also reside within a small church above the foundations of the Temple of Artemis outside Selcuk, Turkey? And why does it also occupy an honored niche at the Vatican?
How many heads did John have?
History speaks. John was beheaded at Mukawir, Jordan, near present-day Madaba. Salome requested the act. Since I have walked the streets of Madaba, Selcuk, and Rome, I can attest that Madaba is a damned sight closer to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus than it is to either Turkey or Italy. Rome demands a boat trip, for god's sake.
Mosques are constructed with a square to one side, away from the direction of Mecca. The square is usually walled or fenced in. Believers and visitors alike (since the 19th century) can amble in, seat themselves, sleep overnight, and wash up. In a desert world, water is hospitality. It is also sacramental. Mohammed was instructed to wash up to the elbows before praying. After striding through the dust of the Middle East, who can resist?
At the Umayyad mosque, pilgrims wash up at a square structure that looks like a roofed Bavarian mountain porch supported by Ottoman arches set upon white Doric columns. The whole edifice rises about twenty-five feet. Ottoman arches are Roman arches built with alternating light and dark-hued stones. The effect is quite captivating, in the way that a backgammon board or checkerboard manages to please even those who don't know the game.
Down from my flat in New Orleans is a large villa hired out for weddings. It once belonged to a German spy who kept up illicit communications with U-boats near the mouth of the Mississippi. The wedding parties in his former backyard (the side, really) make use of an antebellum gazebo whose flat roof is set on columns. Were that roof to develop a winsome blue dome surmounted by a brass crescent (the design that completes the circle), it would look like another Umayyad courtyard structure, the Dome of the Clocks. There was once a collection of clocks installed there -- why, I have no idea. One might just as soon ask why there was a disabled rail car serving beer at the defunct Hejazi Railroad Station in an overwhelmingly Muslim country? Regardless, this little domed structure blesses its end of the courtyard. While I watched the foot traffic approach it, look up and down, then depart in various stages of blankness, a young mother in hejab stopped, bent down, and fixed a diaper on her two-year old son. He held in one hand a pink balloon with an image, as close as I could tell, of Krazy Kat.
I sat on a stone block beneath a long shady colonnade. The colonnade ran around the entire courtyard and every square column supporting it was decorated in startling shades of azure and aquamarine inlay work. The best way to think about these columns -- so many of them -- is as pieces in a conceptual art work, the design changing but slightly over the great distance of the courtyard. If you got up and became involved with each column, that was one thing. To sit and observe the array was another.
More than anything else, pilgrims were washing up. I watched them wandering in the main gate. Like myself, they cast their eyes upward across the courtyard to an amazing blue inlay that covered one side of the prayer hall. It rose three stories and looked like a huge tattoo on the back of a Polynesian native. The blue lines on caramel stonework illustrated a view of heaven. Gardens, palaces, trees (no human figures). It was something to think about, to internalize in case the imagination hadn't been sufficient about the rewards to come.
As soon as the pilgrims caught sight of the washing station, they headed off, singly, much like bees who've been hovering in front of a forest entry, suddenly darting off in the one true direction.
I inspected the tightness of the masonry work all around me…like a seamstress's hem.
When I woke up, my eyes penetrated a dry twig of a nonagenarian. She stood at fifty meters by the fountains, wearing long black robes. A black scarf surrounded her sienna face as a walnut's husk encases its shell. Light burst from her heavily kohled eyes. She was from the desert -- at least originally. City folk don't look that way anywhere in the world. Besides, Arab desert folk have been migrating to the cities for some time now. Toothless but strong of jawline, she lectured a group of younger women. Before my nap I had watched them arrive, detaching themselves from their husbands, one by one. Now they bent their heads together, as one, listening to the crone. Some of the women wore brown robes with white headscarves. Some wore long black skirts with long-sleeved blouses. Were worlds being balanced? God summoned? I thought it more likely the hagga was curling the fates of dozens of family members whose lives filled the air liked fantastic vines.
Lest I find myself wandering over just to hear the crone screech out her story, I glanced aside. Such behavior would be haram (not to be done).
My glance took me to the farthest point of the courtyard where there stood a device resembling something that my wife's first grade students put together regularly, from their block basket. A large octagonal piece -- once again, a tattoo masterpiece with symmetric vegetal swirls and ranks of palaces emblazoned on caramel stone -- was thrust into the air by the aid of some recycled Roman columns (Corinthian). What capped it but a dome and crescent? It looked like an art nouveau container for toffee -- not a bad resemblance since it once held sweets in the form of offerings to the mosque. The Treasury is its official tag.
Overly engrossed by materiality, I rose to visit the prayer room. Besides, I had a bus to catch later that day. I stood up and fell in with the pilgrims traipsing by. A few peeled off to the left where a small door near the Dome of Clocks took them in and sealed itself back up. The majority, however, stopped before a larger set of doors at the opposite corner. Surely these were the doors for me.
Outside these doors, filling a stone walkway, were fifty-three pairs of shoes. Caked in dust, they pointed in no set direction. Watching over these shoes were servants of the Lord.
Forgive me, Allah, I loved my boots too much to leave them on the walkway. But I wasn't alone. Anyone wearing expensive shoes was toting them in hand.
A man stepped in front of me. He wore a gray gelabiya and smiled a cavernous black hole. While I stared at him, he raised a pair of paper galoshes. Much as I wanted to ease a coin into his hand (he also watched over the fifty-three pairs of shoes), I felt that I already looked the fool -- Western hat, pink skin and all. I smiled and started past him.
Another man's hand grasped my arm. Suddenly, before my eyes, dangled a camera -- a very fine camera. Its black lens coverings gleamed, though all of us stood in shadow. The man was Japanese. He wanted a photo of himself -- he conveyed as much in sign language, larded with huge smiles. I nodded, seized his contraption, and located the trigger while he walked out and stood before a four-panel set of decorative tiles. The tiles were marble, each of them a different natural design, very contemporary in feel. I might have been snapping his photo within a residential courtyard in Tokyo, or Tucson for that fact. When I finished, he pointed to my camera. When we exchanged devices, my four hundred dollar Minolta felt as insubstantial as a Mardi Gras throw.
When I look at the picture he took -- of me standing where he stood -- I see two men: a bit of him, a bit of me. Neither image seems distinct to me, and the picture carries a mixed cachet, as if we'd swapped spirits and never quite returned what belonged to the other, not in full measure. There are so many hazards to traveling. Probably at the end of any prolonged journey, one should check into the Berkeley Psychic Institute for a cleansing.
The mosque interior was long, rectangular. Two rows of columns supported arches that, in turn, held another row of shortie columns fitted beneath the dark wooden beams of the ceiling. The columns confronted one with order, with combination. When you moved around the room, the columns cut the room into slanting spaces. Sol LeWitt cube sculptures worked like this. All a viewer needs do is move around LeWitt's cubes while fixing the eye on a single point. The slanting spaces disclose themselves. LeWitt: conveyor of mosque-like orders. Had he been to Damascus?
A hundred Persian carpets covered the floor in strips of dark vermilion, in faded fuchsia with black arabesques. The guidebook said "threadbare in places." I'm sure the writers meant 'authentic, often trammeled by pilgrims.' Why go to a mosque as ancient as the Umayyad and start talking "threadbare"? Everything outside of the West, practically, is threadbare. Planned obsolescence hasn't caught up to these places. In other words, the Umayyad Mosque contains an essence of the authentic. It's not yet the Verizon Umayyad Mosque where everything is new and the bathrooms are continuously scrubbed.
Where was I? Black arabesque patterns on the carpets. Arabesque is nothing but a tendril design, abstracted. It becomes tight and mysterious when convoluted upon itself, much like certain barflies at the Napoleon House in New Orleans. The carpets lay lengthwise on the stone floor. Had they been laid horizontally, the room's feeling of linearity-unto-infinity would have been destroyed. Arabs invented the zero. They know what they are doing.
A Muslim prayer session usually features undulant recitation of Suras, or Quranic verses. These readings are sometimes followed by a session of call and response, like pieces of the Bible followed by collective Amens. Sometimes a brief sermon concludes everything. But Islam mostly tends to silence. Mosques contain much swishing of garments as believers prostrate themselves then rise from prayer mats. Set phrases of devotion make the lips move, but often the only sound is a whisper, or nothing.
I walked to the mosque's center. Above me was a colorful transept, or inset dome, filled out with calligraphy and more design. I wasn't much interested in it. All the action was at carpet level. As I stood there watching the pilgrims move bulkily, like ice floes, I pressed the thumb and first two fingers of my right hand into the warm joined heels of my boots. I was aware of how gigantic they looked. I watched the other visitors study the building but cast a glance at my boots, as well. Like Oklahomans standing before the Woolworth Building, the pilgrims arced their heads back and gathered in the transept. They too were not interested. Nevertheless, their mouths drifted open as they brought their cameras up, and CLICK. The room was winking in flashbulbs.
I was the only person not connected to a tour group. It didn't make much difference. The guides yacked, but their charges wandered where they wanted.
In this laissez-faire environment, I crouched on my knees getting a photo of my boots in a small wooden trough. The troughs were roughly hewn, painted a standard brown. It's impossible to hold shoes and bring the hands together in prayer, hence the troughs. Otherwise, the shoesoles would leave their dust on the carpets. While down on my knees, bent over, I caught two men in clipped mustaches sizing me up. While their guide rattled on, they shouldered past him and came my way. Was I taking a photo of an idolatrous subject?
I stood up.
"Can we talk?" the older man said.
"Of course." I followed their lead in squatting Indian-style on the carpets, the three of us forming a triangle. No introductions. Their polyester jackets whistled while they got settled.
"Things are very bad where we live," the older man said. I made them out as brothers.
"Which is where?"
Why, sure. Their almond skin and dreamy eyes reminded me of Hani who worked at his brother's deli near Astor Place, catty-corner from the Public. I'd known several Iranians in New York. Later, I'd known a younger group in Louisiana. After the Ayatollah's takeover, a great many Iranian students at my school had asked for help. They said they would be killed if they returned. Many of them were returned anyway. Professors at the university flunked these students when they became too addled with fear to study. 'Oh, that's just an excuse,' I heard the professors saying. Other professors would say, 'No, no, it isn't.' So many addled, flunking Iranian students had led to an ethical dilemma. 'Do we start to hand out grades for humanitarian reasons?' Different students met different fates. Some gained citizenship. Some flew home to burial grounds. We know that now.
The younger brother corrected the conversation's flow. "Business is very bad."
"In America it is very good."
"Right now, yes," I said.
"In America, if you have a depression -- the Great Depression, you know -- it is Christmas compared to our country." Christmas. They were more westernized than I'd thought.
"Can you help us get to America?"
Just like that. "No, I have no connections with government."
The older brother tapped his brother's sleeve. The younger man shut up.
I asked how they had gotten to Damascus. "I know you can't travel through Iraq." Certainly not. Both countries had killed each other for ten years, waging Somme-like trench warfare.
"We drove through Turkey then down."
"That's a long trip."
"What brings you?"
"Hussein, the Imam. That and the fact that there is no business." He shrugged again. "So we travel."
"Listen," broke in the younger brother, "if someone invites us to America, then we can come."
"Maybe if a university or business invites you," I said. "But not just anybody."
We swapped email addresses -- the new courtesy. They walked back to their group.
Twenty years after Ali's assassination, Hussein, second son of Ali, was run down by Mu'awiya's son, Yazid. The site of this vanquishing, Karbala, is a famous Shia pilgrimage in present-day Iraq. Karbala for Shi'as is like Gettysburg for Old South revivalists. Hussein and family were slaughtered. As per Yazid's orders, Hussein's head was severed, carried back to Damascus for totemic verification. For Shi'as the world had gone askew ever since.
Hussein's head resided in this complex. The smaller crowd, who had disappeared into the less conspicuous door to the left outside, had been filing in to see the tomb of Hussein. They were all Shi'as.
I didn't visit Hussein's head. John's was enough for me. It lay somewhere inside a tiny house built inside the room where I stood. There were windows and I stopped, not long, to view his decorated sarcophagus.
I'd seen Rumi's tomb in Konya, so I knew something of Muslim sarcophagi. First, they were huge. Five dessicated saints could fit inside one. Sometimes a turban was propped on the head end, which made it seem as if someone wanted to provide the saint's head with lebensraum. Special commemorative cloths covered the box, top to bottom. Where was John's head exactly? When I thought of all the empty space I suffered the yecchh response.
Exiting the mosque by its far door, I slipped back into my boots. I walked across the courtyard and beneath the main gate, out.
Over at Salah al Din's tomb, the bibliophile was still scanning his book. But the gate was open. Once I faced him from inside, I read the single word on his book's cover: roman. The man looked like a famous writer, though which one I couldn't quite place. Thin white hair on the sides, eyebrows dark enough, a finely cropped mustache over his mouth. He also looked like a former Graeco-Roman wrestler, wide of shoulder, all his stomach muscles sagging now. He wore a pin-striped shirt with dusty-white pants -- we dressed alike. I'd once known a Syrian Olympic silver medal winner, Joe Aitella. After he won the silver as a heavyweight, Joe opened a bingo game in Baton Rouge. He and this book reader could have shared family, or a few tumbles.
However, as soon as he saw me, the man pursed his lips and turned aside. He expected chilliness, the book lover's karma for having frozen me out earlier before the gates had opened, him loving his book so much more than the human standing behind him. No question that he recognized me.
"I too am a novel reader," I said in English, hoping he would have that language. "But I cannot read them in French."
Without smiling he said, "I read novels in English, but I am very slow. Where are you from?"
"That is America?"
He bent to a pile of postcards on a bench and pushed them aside. I saw the English-language novel he'd been referring to. I wished novel had been printed on a plain cover. Instead, a roseate-skinned beauty with low bodice and curling black locks peered fiercely out a window. Enter the Stranger had been floridly scripted. Perhaps I should say the title was in Arabesque.
"Where did you get this?" I said.
"Americans. The trash collectors get the books when they move out, then the collectors resell them on the streets." He picked up a heap of a used English dictionary.
"Did that come from the trash too?"
"No, no. I bought this new." His forefinger snaked out and caught a folded down page. "Help me pronounce a few words, if you don't mind."
I followed his finger. "That word is 'rotund.'"
"Rotund. That word sounds very strange to my ear." He flipped to another word.
"Queer. Fabric now adding ate."
Suddenly the word seemed queer to me too.
"No, like aim."
"Femme," he said.
"Thank you very much." He closed the dictionary and thrust his hand to one side pointing to the mausoleum.
I walked inside the building no larger than a lawnmower shed. Two sarcophagi, not one, rested within. Both devices belonged to Saladin. A dried wreath of flowers stood at the end of the newer sarcophagus. The flowers had been placed there by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898. The sarcophagus and refurbished building (refurbished only a century before) were also the Kaiser's work. Gifts from one military genius to another, I suppose. But which box held the man?
I walked outside, not with this question on my lips. The keeper raised his brows. "Would you like to take a picture?"
Faded cardboard notices on each side of his tiny compound said, "No photos, no videos."
"Yes, thank you," I said. "Would you stand for me over there?" I pointed to the tomb's doorway washed in morning light. The tip of the older sarcophagus just made it into the light. I was saying to myself, 'I don't know about Islam if that older beat-up sarcophagus isn't Salah al Din's.'
"Me?" he said. "You want to take my picture?"
"Yes. Fellow reader and all."
He looked at the sandy earth as if I were making a joke but walked into place. For some reason he put his left hand behind his back. The gesture made me inspect the hand, unobtrusively, when I was folding up the camera. But no, the hand wasn't withered, he'd just responded with a semi-military reflex. That's how the photo records the posture -- semi-military, which seems correct for Saladin's tomb, along with a helpless smile.
I picked my way among shadowy shapes leaning against the high, dark walls of the bazaar. Saladin, Imam Hussein, John the Baptist, they had once been so powerful. So too, Hafez al Assad. My next stop would have to be Hama. Home of the merry water wheels, Hama was also where al Assad had quelled an Islamist uprising in 1982. Middle East Watch, a human rights organization, estimated ten to twenty-five thousand Syrians lay in the ground there.
Concluding episode: creaking norias, coins as weapons, crusader castles, unquiet silences.
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