This small piece of writing was initially written in 2017 for a post on The Wayfarer’s Compass. I am reproducing it here to build up the blog as a writing portfolio. Not my traditional style of writing I suppose, but it does reflect the state of my mind once upon a time. Reading it puts me in a particular pensive mood, so naturally I tend to avoid doing so.
Whenever I tell people of my time in Damascus before the war, I inevitably end up talking about the chaos. The mad bustling mess of colours, sounds and flavours, a sensory assault for those of us used to suburban sterility.
Life would flow all around me, through me, and often rudely shoved me out of its way. I learnt as best I could to navigate through it, learnt the ways of the people, the ways of the city, but still I found the disorder and confusion so grating.
But there was peace too.
I lived for 6 months in Damascus, in Rukn ad-Din (where else!) – The “Corner of the Faith”, a little maze of streets centred around Abu Nour Mosque, where people from all around the world came to study Islam – and I truly mean all around the world. I met people from Russia, Daghestan, China, Mongolia, India, Turkey, Thailand, and other places I’d never heard of before. I hardly spoke any English my entire time there. We spoke to each other in Classical Arabic, a strange linguistic bubble with a liturgical language as the lingua franca, and we often liked to think we were speaking as people did in the time of the Prophet. The Arabs looked on and laughed at our Shakespearean formality.
Rukn ad-Din lay at the foot of Jabal Qasioun, a mountain standing overlooking Damascus. There are many legends about the mountain: that it was where Adam first lived, that it was the site where Qabil killed Habil, that is was where the 40 Abdal gather every night to pray tahajjud over the city to safeguard it. It was said that throughout history many a Damascene leader had ascended its stony steps and prayed for rain, for it was here that prayers would always be accepted.
I made many prayers on that mountain once upon a time.
To get to the top of the mountain, you had to pay a man with a ute to drive you up to a certain height, where the roads ended, and then walk the rest of the way. There were always a few drivers around, and their trucks were decorated with fake floral garlands and swathes of heavily patterned red-and-black fabric straight out of a British orientalist’s Bedouin tent fantasy – the kitschier the better.
I rode up by myself regularly, to the bemusement of the Syrian drivers, who either chuckled at my oddly-accented shami Arabic, pelting me with their curiosity or ignored me altogether. Even in the colder months I would walk up to the top with just my heavily worn leather sandals on my dusty feet, bought from Souk al-Hamiddiyya like a proper tourist, and ground into fraying threads like a proper seeker.
When I sat upon that mountain and looked upon the city, I looked upon the world, and felt some of its spiritual magic enter my heart.