Jan 17, 2006 - travelogue    Comments Off

Damascus Call

Jamia Ummiwiye

Damascus …- I hear its call but I am too scared to answer it.

Outside my window I still hear boys playing in the street even at this late hour. An old man coughs as he walks by below. Somewhere a cat meows so loud you almost think it is a child’s cry. I hear some horns beeping coming from the Sahah.

Damascus is calling me. Its charm just wraps around a person and doesn’t let go. So many students have been here over the years from all over the world and they keep coming back. Their memories of this enchanting land never fade. My memories never fade.

There is one memory I have, almost four years ago to the day of writing this. We climbed on top of F&T’s little roof using their wooden ladder from their balcony. There we were so high up on Mount Qasyoun we could see the entire city before us. I could see people on their roofs nearby… taking down their washings or just preparing things. They sky turned a vivid hot pink and gold degree by degree and just when we thought it was so beautiful … the first Athaan rang out “Allaaaaaaaaahu Akbar, Allaaaaaaaaahu Akbar” and then another and another until we could see all the green fluorescent lights of Musallahs in the city light up one by one and heard all their calls.

This is Damascus.

How I have missed it. I am not well enough to venture out but I have missed it with a desperation I didn’t know. I want to walk down the Souks in my dusty Jilbab. I want to laugh in the internet cafe. I want to pray in the dark coolness of my local Masjid. I wonder if the Sahabah felt the call of this city too. Abu Darda is buried here, Bilal, some of the mothers of the believers, so many others. I think of all the righteous people that came before me. Salahuddin, Ibn Taymiyya, Rabia al Adawiiya, Imam Nawawi, scholars, Sufis, teachers.

This was their city. They walked through it, they breathed its air. They lived here. They died here.

I still don’t know what I’m doing in Damascus, but I do know that somehow within my soul there is an answer to its call.

Jan 10, 2006 - travelogue    1 Comment

Madinatun Nabi

Madinat al-Munawwarah

It’s amazing just walking around the prophet’s mosque or looking at all the people streaming out after prayer. Every Hijab style you can imagine. Dupattas, wrapped African scarves, chadors, all colors and sizes and of course there is the predominant black abaya, with matching scarf or niqab. I was trying to figure out one Hijab style where the fringes end up as triangles down the back.

You can see the differences more markedly among the men. There’s Pakistanis with shalwar kameez. Tall Sudanis with crisp white jalabayas and those huge complicated turbans, there’s tons of Arab men, Malaysians with their long shirt and wraparounds, Afghanis with their black round hats. I’ve now even seen contingents from far off places like Sri Lanka, Mauritius, China and Australia. I think it’s so cool when people wear scarves or bags or jackets with their country. It almost feels like the Olympics :)

We went on ziyarah today to see some of the sights. We visited the 7 mosques at khandaq, Quba and Qiblatain Masjid and finally Uhud. I was so disappointed at seeing Uhud. It has changed so much just from the last 5 years since I have been here.

Behind the hill of the archers, there is a huge parking lot and road. Next to the graves there are stall structures for a bazaar and a big mosque with toilets. There are tons of vendors everywhere. When I came here 5 years ago there was nothing here at all. It was just barren rocky sandy land with one road. There was a gate all around the Shuhada’s graves and far in the distance at the foot of Uhud you could see some houses.It was just so sad.

While waiting, buses of pilgrims came. Russian/Albanian, Sierra Leone, Iraninans. They came, looked, shopped, took some pictures and left. It just didn’t seem right. The archers hill is steadily getting smaller and smaller. And structures keep going up. Perhaps one day there will be houses and buildings and a city all around and just this walled off lonely cemetery where ‘legend has it’ some Shuhada were buried.

The same story with the Haram area. It’s all huge hotels now with more and more being built. You can see construction ongoing everywhere.

I long to find the Madina of the Prophets time. Where are the mud houses, the narrow alleyways, the date palm groves. Where are the people who live here year round.

We pounded the pavement looking for gifts to bring back home. The difficulty is that everything is so spread apart and the rampant price gouging makes us have to ask the price at 3 stores at least. For example, yesterday we were trying to buy some Tasbihs with inlay designs. One store owner said 20 each and went down to 15 , the next place said he’d give 12 for 150 and the third place said 15 at the start and then using his calculator he kept moving up the price to 25! Not to mention the stores where the owners get mad when you try to bargain (ie get a normal price) and grab the thing back and say ‘salam alaykum!’. Again I wondered how they could do this right in front of the prophet (saw).

At another store in the mall an Afghani worker says to the auntie with me, ‘Why are you bothering me baji?’. He then went on to say some harsh words about America once he learned we were from there. The auntie tried to explain to him that there were better Muslims there than here. He said they didn’t even know how to pray and went on to mock and make fun of them. I was ready to just leave and label him ‘jahil’ or worse, but the auntie stayed and tried to talk to him saying if we do dawah then one day all of America might become Muslim, so he says “then make dua for that.” Alhamdulillah auntie had the last word and said, “I have been for these 20 years at least”.

At our hotel we have about 5 groups that eat on one side of the restaurant. There are two buffet tables and the room is packed with tables and chairs. Unfortunately its so crowded and unorganized that some fights broke out the first day and now people try to go early and pile the stuff onto their plates, hoarding desserts. Ironically while at the first expensive hotel with its huge buffets, everyone tried to eat elegantly and sparingly.

You know I never realized this but there are seriously different Hajjs. There’s the 5-star Hajj with the 5 star service – conveniences like space, irons, hot water, hair dryers, washing machines, stores right in your hotel, elegant plentiful buffets. Many bathrooms and showers and less people.

Then there is our Hajj, four women crammed in a room on single twin beds, suitcases stuffed in every corner and even on beds, laundry hanging everywhere. No towels, dirty bathrooms and unmade beds.

And then after that I know there is another Hajj. The Hajj of Muslims coming from African countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Hajjis from the subcontinent, Indian, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other poor nations. They live blocks away from either of the hotels we complain about, crammed into hostel type old buildings and motels. They have to walk for a long time and far for each prayer and they also have to buy food off the streets and eat it. I don’t think all the groups go on the ziyarahs either. They tend to camp out around the harams because their hotels are so far. Contrast this with the 5 star group within our own hajj company showing up at Uhud in their expensive American clean clothes, sunglasses, clutching cameras and camcorders.

They looked like well groomed tourists at a European sightseeing tour. Our tour guide told us that a certain sheikh would be with all the groups. He ended up being with the 5 star only. The best English speaking scholar of the history of Madina and we didn’t get to hear any of it. Only a few tidbits of history as we passed. I am disappointed. I thought Hajj would be where every Muslim comes together and becomes the same, but it just isn’t.

Dec 20, 2005 - travelogue    2 Comments

Cold Indian Nights


Bandi Kalan village, India

It was a cold night, kind of like a cold November night back home. Yesterday, from the big city of Benares we journeyed our way here. We had piled into the jeep and navigated our way through the narrow teeming streets, beeping all the way so that the people, boys on bikes and men with carts moved to the side. We passed the bird market street with all its cages of little colorful birds of all varieties and narrowly missed hitting a little girl. It’s a wonder to me that more people don’t have accidents here everyday. As we passed town after town, we saw stores, men building roads, makeshift car fixing places, every kind of craftsmen store, bicycle shops, people walking, women carrying loads of hay on their heads, trucks carrying rice or wood, even a shepherd moving his goats along. We went from the city through smaller and smaller towns to the more rural areas.

Here is the other half of India, where people grow rice and work in the fields all day and return home to their villages in the evening. They have lived in this same way for hundreds of years. Finally, we turn onto the dirt road that leads to our village. According to my father our family has lived here for generations and traces its way back to its founding. The village is made up of brick alleyways that lead to houses made mostly of clay. If you entered any doorway you would usually see a courtyard with a water pump in the corner, a metal pot next to it for Wudu, some cots with bedspreads, and some pans in the corner next to a clay or gas burner. Each home has a family that has lived here for generations. Nowadays instead of agriculture, most of the men support their families by going overseas to places like Saudi for years at a time.

We entered our ancestral home and met my aunts and cousins. They have been waiting since daylight. We made Wudu and prayed on the mats in the front room. Usually all the homes have a front guest area where any non related men can be entertained. Inside the house girls wear dupattas but only cover completely in front of their fathers and older men. They don’t wear Hijab in front of their cousins. The system seems to work fine except that in India it is common for cousins to marry each other!

We ate dinner cooked by two girl helpers and my aunt and cousins. One of the little girls had a large scar on her cheek, when I asked about it fearing some accident, they said in their simple way, “She came from Allah’s house like that” I show them how to make salad for my dad. Usually the men eat first and then the women.

Earlier, we decided to go ‘gumneh’ing which means we put on our Niqab and visit various houses. One house had a bride all dressed up in her bridal clothes and jewelry. Tradition in the village is that when a bride arrives in any home, people go to visit her and when she lifts her face they give her money.

Another house we went to had an elderly couple preparing to go to Hajj. Their family had prepared a huge feast of Biryani for anyone who visited. On our way through Benares we passed a place where all the Hujjaj were leaving. They were all dressed in white with their black Kufis and vests with long white beards. They were surrounded by family and friends saying their final goodbyes to them before they got in their vehicles. The Muslim world has such beautiful traditions and honors surrounding people leaving for Hajj, I was sad that we didn’t have anything like it in the US.

I am on the roof now with the children. The sun is setting in the distance. Women are on their rooftops preparing various things for the evening, bringing the animals down, finishing the wash, or cooking dinner. The sky is filled with pink and haze. It is almost Maghrib time. The Athaans begin. There are three Masjids in this village. One Athaan starts after the other. In the summer when I was here, everyone would be on the roof at this time, then the men would disappear and you would soon see women on every rooftop praying Maghrib.

In the distance are the fields of rice and sugar cane. Once it becomes dark people go to sleep and tend to stay awake after Fajr. It feels nice to be part of a village of Muslims. There are about four hundred Muslim families that live here.

At night, there are about 14 of us in a small room sleeping on handmade comforters spread on top of hay. My grandmother, me, my aunt, some kids, my other aunt, some other kids and so on. We laid down chatting about our day and laughing until everyone fell asleep.