O.K., so I wanted everybody to know about the wonderful day I had last week when we had a day off from school. That's the post that was lost. Anyway, I'll try to recreate things...
We were in the dark a bit as to which day we would actually be off. Some said this was due to it being a religious holiday and, thus, dependent on the moon. I think the typical organizational style of the university had a bit to do with it, too. It turned out to be a Tuesday and our classroom clique started making plans to get together in the Old City for lunch.
I decided to wake early that day and head into the Old City with a bag of cameras and encamp at the great Umayyad Mosque to try and record the day. I ate a lite breakfast and raced outside into the cold and darkness to catch a micro to Jisr Rais before losing the morning light.
This is not an early rising city, so traffic on the sidewalks was thin as I made my way past the old Hijaz train station, sun shining through the deeply colored glass in the windows. Souq Al-Hammidea was still shuttered from the previous night and now the transient merchants had the run of the place with blankets spread and filled with cheap and counterfit items. Pidgeons fluttered amidst the rusting ribs of the arched metal roof, their scrapping and cooing echoing loudly through the now cavernous space.
I walked past the ancient remnants of columns into the square in front of the mosque to find only pidgeons and a few old men watching the birds intently. The great Bab Al-Barid was shut, the first time I had seen it without the conintuous push of people stepping over the large frame. One heavy old man, a red and white kiffeyeh wrapped around his head, cooed at the birds as he threw them crumbs from a plastic bag on the back of his rusted, black bicycle.
I wandered along the wall and through the gate of the courtyard beneath the Minaret of the Bride only to find all the doors shut. I decided to take a few pictures since you don't see many without throngs of people. The light was sharp but a bit to col. However, it was so quiet and nice to have the place to myself. I wanted to stay a bit longer.
I wandered away from the mosque and into the tangle of streets and passageways, relying on my gut to keep me from getting lost. The light was warmer on the east side of the mosque and I took a few nice shots of the Minaret of Jesus, in the slim and subdued Ottoman design. Every turn in the Old City brings you to something you didn't know you were looking for. I found a tiny Ottoman mosque with a courtyard full of lush plants, a tiny Christian shrine in an alley corner full of icons and Christmas lights, and a tiny Virgin Mary statue left in a window to guard over her stretch of alley. The bakers were busy turning out loaf after loaf of khobz arabi, the insides of their workshops black with ancient layers of soot.
After a few hours I headed back towards the mosque. It was still too early to get in so I sat in the courtyard to write. After a while I heard a strange growning and whining noise coming from the street, headed my way. It was a Shiite tour group being led by a squat man in an old, brown suit, barking his stories through an amplifier with a horrible distortion problem. The group moved into the courtyard opposite me and surrounded the man to hear his tales of Ali and Zeinab. At particularly important moments in the story the men would begin to weep openly while the women remain silent and seemingly unmoved. I went back to my journal only to find myself quickly surrounded by a dark cloud of cloth. Turns out I was sitting in their next spot. A few of the women looked at me with a mix of curiosity and apprehension, which only makes sense when you find a lone stranger wearing a screaming pink headscarve in the courtyard of your holy site so early in the morning. I smiled at the women and excused myself to the other side of the yard, near the tomb of Salah Ad-Din.
Finally the time came and the old man in the cloakroom decided to let me pay the 50 lira ($1) to get my Jedi cloak and go inside. A headscarve will not suffice here, as at other mosques. Every woman not wearing a jilbab or abaya is issued a drab brown cover, sort of the color of cheap coffee with milk, with a hood. I slipped into my disguise and headed to the door behind the Shiite group.
Stepping into the great, white courtyard I could hear singing. A large group of men stood around the old ablutions fountain at the center of the yard singing in a language I didn't understand. It was beautiful, mournful and joyous all at once. Inside the still dark prayer hall I found a warm corner and sat down to watch. This is really a place of beutiful contrasts. The quiet solace this place retains through the day contrasts with the thousands who walk through. The floor of the hall is covered with Oriental carpets and the morning light coming through the stained glass windows made for a riot of colors on the soaring columns.
The sterile green light inside the tomb of John the Baptist made the hopes of the thousands who slipped photos of loved ones inside palpable. Tiny photos and a few business cards littered the green and red carpet beside the tomb.
Eventually the group of old men I heard in the courtyard made their way inside the hall and proceeded to sit down beneath the beautiful central dome and begin singing again. They were Shiite certainly, with their rythmic slapping of their own cheeks and shoulders while singing. Most everyone in the hall stopped what they were doing to watch. Each would take a turn rising to lead the group. All wore beige salwaar lkhmeeze and a white skull cap. They sang without stopping, as though there was only one song with many variations, for half an hour. I recorded some cautiously, not wanting to make a spectacle of them. People passed, looking puzzled as to what was going on. Finally, the performance was ended by a stocky, bearded man, obviously the guide, who punded his forefinger to his watch and shouted at the group that they were, undoubtedly, off schedule. As they began filtering out I approached on man and asked him in Arabic where he was from. "Kashmir. Pakistani," the man said, his warm smile leaving deep creases across his slim, brown face. I thanked him for the performance and he smiled again before turning to rejoin his group.
As the hours went by, more people began arriving and passing through. I watched the muzzein in his tiny office call the adhan, the day's prayer times lit up in red on the wall. A few other old men sat at a small table near him, a half drunk round of tea between them.
Sitting beneath one of the pillars I was suprised by a tap on my shoulder. A beautiful little girl with light brown hair looked at me curiously and handed me a candied almond before skipping off to the next person. I looked up, bewildered, to see her father holding a small bag and watching his daughter run about. I caught his eye and mouthed "Shukran" with a nod. He nodded in return and headed after his daughter.
Stepping into the warm sun in the courtyard was a welcome relief after the cold of the prayer hall. One thing I love about mosques is that children are made very welcome. Groups of children ran back and forth across the smooth, white stones playing and laughing while people sat amongst the columns watching. The ablution fountain became the playground for a few boys and girls and one man smiled at them warmly as he began his wudu for prayers.
About midday I had to leave to meet my firends in front of Bab Al-Barid, now clogged with people. One by one our group came together. We strolled through the streets towards Bab Touma and ended up in a beautiful restaurant near the fountain in the courtyard. The afternoon stretched on into evening with the nargileh hose being passed and the discussions ranging over Ibn Arabi, Ibn Batouta, and lesser things. It was dark by the time we stepped out into the alley. We began drifting off for home and I turned back toward Souq Al-Hammadiya with a friend. We stopped for prayers at the mosque again and I enjoyed the contrast between the hours I'd spent there. Taking the long way back we passed through the Takkia Suleymaniya the courtyard surrounding the fountain in front of the mosque empty, dark and cool. We were treated to tea by a weaver in his small shop in the caravansarai. We finally, grudgingly, made it home where I quickly slipped into a deep sleep. Wonderful places, excellent company. Easily the best day I have had in years. Looking forward to the next time.