summertime and malaysian food

 

We’re sitting at a small plastic table next to a ‘restaurant’, which is actually a little too fancy a word for this tiny, glass enclosed square area with a counter out front, a small stove in the back and a huge picture of a shaykh on the wall, inside which a group of students somehow make delicious and ridiculously cheap Malaysian food.  It’s hidden away behind the women’s-only park a few steps down from Abu Nour, on the opposite, lesser-known side of some fast-food shwarma and fried chicken places. Its neighbors are a tire repair garage and another place that fixes engines. 

 

It’s a little before Maghrib time and there’s a sort of calmness that’s settling on the city as the sun cools down.  We’re sitting outside, the little restaurant behind us, facing a big generator and a fence that separates us from the park.  The table holds an antique looking silver pitcher sitting on a cylindrical container, which is an old fashioned means of washing your hands. We hear children playing.  A group of old men lounge on chairs a few steps down from us, their backs to the park, watching young men work on tire parts. 

 

An orange cat seats herself at a convenient location to watch us eat.  We drink water from plastic mugs, take in the green trees and a soft breeze and wait for our meal. The generator turns off and we hear quiet, the birds singing, and the murmur of the old men talking.

 

The food comes, beautifully displayed on simple blue dishes: rice with small pieces of chicken shaped into a perfect circle, with cucumber slices delicately placed on the side. Little potato filled samosas in another small plate, and another with squares of flaky, warm bread just made.  It’s homemade kind of food that instantly reminds me of my mom’s.  I look to the restaurant and see the Malaysian woman (‘auntie’) who’d cooked it, my mom’s age, wearing a long top and skirt printed with small flowers, a simple hijab with lacy edges… and her husband, a dignified older looking man, who could have been cast as a Malaysian shaykh, tidying things in the tiny kitchen.  Some younger brothers who study at Abu Nour also work there. I’ve seen them in the afternoons making bread sometimes, shaping the dough in what looked like an expert manner on a small marble counter, their Arabic books on the back shelf.

 

A cute Malaysian couple approaches from the same way we had come; he’s wearing one of those tall black caps and a goatee, and she has a big book bag on like she’d just come from school and is wearing a soft creamy colored hijab and niqab.  They’re holding hands.  They sit at another table, placed closer to the gate of the park and the generator, and drink some fresh juice.

 

I feel soothed by the calmness of this moment… relative quiet, baraka filled food, temperate weather, my husband giving the cat a wary eye as he eats.  It’s just a lovely summer day and the rush of the city, the worries and business of life and inner complexities seem somehow far removed.  Alhamdulillah for simple moments like these.

 

(Written June 2007)

Published in: on January 11, 2009 at 11:46 am  Comments (7)  

sad article from the NY Times

I recently read an article about Iraqi refugees in Syria turning to prostitution to alleviate their poverty.

Some thoughts that came to my mind when I read this article:

1. I’ve heard a lot of Syrians complain about the Iraqi refugees, and they seem to blame them for many things, including increasing levels of traffic, the jump in housing costs, and a proliferation of crime and places of indecency. It really has a lot to do with the sheer number of people that have come into Syria in such a short time period (which I’ve heard is closer to 2 or 2 and a half million than the number mentioned in the article), and the lack of any sort of infrastructure that would help them transition into a healthy life here, such as viable working alternatives or assisted housing, etc. I think this is a clear example of how an unjust war inevitably breeds more and more harm, including the breakdown of family structure and a negative impact on neighboring countries.

2. I cannot imagine the desperation that would lead a believing Muslim woman, who prayed and practiced (like it’s mentioned in the article) go so far, and I can only attribute it to a state of real trauma, a hopelessness, that is beyond our understanding.

We really have no idea how big a fitna (challenge or test) poverty is for so many people in this world and how it can lead to a real shaking of faith. There are so many texts in which the Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, would seek refuge from ‘al-kufr wal-faqr’ (unbelief and poverty), as if there’s a direct connection between the two.

And wealth is an equally disastrous fitna, as can be seen by its misuse in the hands of the men who visit these places. The Prophet salAllahu alayhi wa salam would also pray, “O Lord, I seek Thy refuge from […]the evil of the challenge of wealth and the evil of the challenge of poverty…” (Bukhari and Muslim).

3. It makes me really appreciate how appealing and dignified the quality of hayaa’ (modesty, chastity) is, especially in men, and how low, base and weak a man seems without it.

There’s a story of a righteous young man from the time of the tabi’i tabi’een (the third generation after the prophet salAllahu alayhi wa salam) who was once traveling. While he was alone in his tent in the desert, in the darkness of the night, a beautiful woman approached him and presented herself to him. Hearing her offer his eyes filled with tears. She asked him why he had begun to cry and he said, “Out of a feeling of lowliness before God, that He would test me in this way.” And he asked her, “Do you not fear God, that you might die at this very moment?” The woman left, weeping in repentance.

A few months later he had a dream in which the Prophet Yusuf (alayhis salaam) came to him. The man said to Yusuf (alayhis salaam), “I was amazed by your story in the Quran, and your honor and steadfastness before the wife of Azeez.” The Prophet Yusuf (alayhis salaam) said to him in return, “and I am amazed at your story, when a woman approached you in a tent in the depths of night, and you remained steadfast.”

4. It also makes me think: Isn’t this a perfect example of when polygamy would be a healthy option in a society? These same rich Gulf Arab men who frequent these places… how much better would the situation be if they married some of these women, and honored them with the full rights, material and spiritual, that a wife deserves, instead of using them in this way, which only harms everyone involved: it hurts the men’s own souls and hurts the well-being of their marriages and their families, and it harms these women in such a horrible way, putting them at risk to disease, affecting their psychology and feelings of self-worth, damaging them spiritually… There really is so much wisdom in the Shari’ah, and its goal truly is ‘to bring about benefit and good and to avoid and push away harm’ in all of its rulings.

5. When I read things like this I really think about what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. There are so many people in this world whose life struggle is simply to survive. What about me and you… what’s our struggle? What are we supposed to be doing, seeing as we’ve been blessed with so many things, not the least of which is well-being, safety and wealth?

May Allah protect us from the harms of poverty and the tests of wealth and make us people of courage, uprightness, honor and ‘iffah. May Allah make things easy for our brothers and sisters suffering in this world, and take us collectively from darkness into light, ameen.

Published in: on June 4, 2007 at 12:23 pm  Comments (5)  

the first touch of spring

On the wide alleyway between my brother’s house and mine there’s a large brick wall, behind which is a small courtyard and house. Branches of a few trees peek out from the top of the wall, but it is otherwise a very solemn and lifeless sight. It has an imposing metal door, which I’ve only seen open once before. Months ago, a group of boys, who often play tag or soccer on the little streets and alleyways between houses, had gathered in front of this house and started pushing and shoving, about to fight, and getting quite loud. The mistress of the house, a no-nonsense older woman, opened the door to the racket and promptly threw a bucket of water at the boys, along with a few sharp words, which helped them to disperse rather quickly. In the few moments I stood watching this scene (happening to pass by at that opportune moment) I remember thinking that that’s a good trick to know :), and I also remember noticing that the courtyard was beautiful, with lots of green plants and many trees.

It’s a hallmark of traditional Damascene architecture to be ugly from the outside and beautiful from within. If you walk through the Old City you’ll see lots of imposing brick walls, metal gates, and sometimes entry doors to homes that are extremely small; but if you entered inside you’d find spacious, beautiful courtyards with lemon and orange trees, gurgling fountains, and the floor sketched out with mosaic tiles.

I’ve heard many reasons for this, one being that traditionally there is a clear line between the outside world and the inner sphere of one’s home, family and property; another, that it was meant to ward off ‘the eye’ and keep from advertising one’s wealth and prosperity to those who may be less fortunate; and most interestingly, I heard that the small doors were meant to force the owner of the house to have to enter his home literally and physically with his head lowered, as a way to instill humility in a person who may become proud of what he owns.

It’s a depressing sight though, to always be looking from the outside…. but it’s a good lesson to learn. Don’t be so shallow, and don’t focus so much on externals. Sometimes there’s beauty hidden away, and sometimes it’s not for you to see.

I must have passed this brick wall a thousand times or more, and in the last few months the branches that reach heavenwards have been bare and lifeless.

Yesterday I noticed that one tree among them had blossomed, it’s branches covered with tiny white flowers. In the stark sandy-beige of the street, the wall, and the surrounding houses, it’s vivid color is so gorgeous, masha’Allah. I think it’s the first touch of spring I’ve seen this year. As the days grow warmer and the trees and flowers come into bloom, there’s a vibe of life and energy in the air that’s really uplifting…

I ask that Allah make the upcoming season one full of growth and renewal for us, and a time when our hearts are thawed from the coldness of indifference into the warmth of dhikr and remembrance of Him, His mercy and kindness.

May Allah grant us leave from dark days, and enter us into days of happiness, hope and beauty. (ameen.)

P.S. : I know that there are a lot of good people who read this blog, so I’d like to request that you please pray for my Mom, who is not feeling well these days. Jazak(i) Allahu khayra.

wasalaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.

Published in: on March 14, 2007 at 2:44 pm  Comments (10)  

the city

damascus was born yesterday and she’s a million years old. we walk on ancient land, treading on the bones of a thousand generations, layers of civilization since time began. we walk on sidewalk and pavement, litter, dirt and dust, through sunny skies and crowded streets, ancient houses, street cats eyeing you from the tops of dumpsters, little boys carrying bread home from the baker. a million stalls in the souq, vegetables in square arrangements like quilted cloth, women carefully making their way through, grocery bags in hand, in high heeled shoes and purses with the criss-crossed c’s of ‘chanel’. Skinned sheep hanging on hooks outside butcher shops, tables filled with cheap cosmetics and hairbrushes, cascades of scarves hanging up outside clothing shops, small mosques with luminous green lights. bumper to bumper traffic, taxis, Pepsi trucks, suzukis, microbuses, the big blue bus heading downtown, towards the Hijaz Railway Station, where historic trains used to bring pilgrims to the holy cities, and now makes charming background for the tourists.

The old city, blind alleyways and narrow streets, maqams and graves, no end to the jumble of small shops and wares being sold, just like the last few centuries: fabrics to the left, spices straight ahead, metals around the way to the right. hawk eyed sellers appraising your value from one glance, trying out their limited vocabulary in a number of languages. “min junoob afriqiyya ukhti? you speak tha englisss? very beautiful dress. for you only one thousand…”

 its heart and soul: jami’a umawiyy, the eye of the storm, soothing calm among the fervor of people and business, walls whispering stories of scholars, worshippers, and lovers of God.

my street. adhan ringing to the skies, occasional pop music from passing cars, young men chilling on the street and laughing until late into the night. students of deen walking by in well pressed thaubs and books in hand. a father calling his wayward son home from a high apartment window “Brahiiiiiim!“. footsteps of the neighbors kids playing upstairs, soulful quran recitation from a students open window.

a living breathing entity this city, a few million peoples lives happening to cross paths, along with the vibe of countless dead ancients, Kurds, Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese, and the ‘pure’ Damascenes, who can tell what part of Syria you were born in by the way you say your ‘a’, and who can still ask ‘bayt min?’ (What’s your family name?) and know whether the answer deserves a respectful nod or an upturned eyebrow. even language is a play on old and new, Allahu yu’teeka al-aafiyah (a prayer for well being) before asking for anything, and general conversation mixed with borrowed English words, making it far from the classical…

ancient and modern, slow paced and pulsating, complex and colorful… that’s damascus for you…

Published in: on February 28, 2007 at 12:23 pm  Comments (7)  

sunrise over damascus

A short time after we moved to Damascus last year, we decided to hike to the top of Jabal Qasiyoun, the huge mountain that stands firm on the northern edge of the city. It is ancient, and its weathered rocks, lifeless and rough, bear witness to its age. Only Allah knows how many prophets and ‘awliyaa have walked its surface. There are many maqams (noted burial sites), on it, including that of the Prophet Dhul Kifl (alayhis salaam). It’s not hard to believe, walking through the city of Damascus with all of its ancient buildings, relics, and graves, that Qasiyoun has been a silent witness to much of human history including the ages of the prophets.

We planned on hiking Jabal Qasiyoun with a classmate of ours, a student of Arabic from Norway. He was here fulfilling that ancient European tradition of wandering through the East, his sole intent being to seek out enlightening experiences and interesting characters. He told us about his most recent trip before coming to Syria, of walking through Morocco… literally, walking through Morocco, from one end to the other, with only a backpack, exploring different villages and towns, sleeping on the roadways. You find many students like this here in Syria, Westerners just wanting to absorb something exotic and different, open-minded and reflective.

We began our hike from Shaykh Muhiyudin, the masjid that houses the grave of the famous poet and mystic Ibn ‘Arabi. It’s situated in the heart of Souq Jummah at the bottom of the mountain. We began our trek after Fajr.

Winding through the humble houses built on the mountainside are cement stairs here and there, some a hundred steps, some more, each to help someone make their way up towards homes that are beyond the reach of cars or suzukis. We began our hike up these stairs with a lot of enthusiasm, but after just a short while I was exhausted. Working life in Houston, sitting in front of a computer all day, just hadn’t prepared me for this. Adjusting to life in Syria had been tough so far, in many different ways, including physically.

As I started to lag behind the others and breathe more and more heavily, I began to look at this hike as a metaphor for the struggle that I had just begun in choosing to come here; as a preparation for a new life, of more difficult but more fulfilling and meaningful experiences. I made the resolve in myself to make it to the top. I urged the others to go ahead without me, and kept going at my own pace.

Occasionally we would stop and look back at the city below us, veiled in a mercurial darkness at this time before daylight. Minarets were distinct points of light in the otherwise obscured city; and Jami’ Umawiyy, the large masjid at its center, shone like an ethereal palace in the distance.

minaret-and-burgundy-sky.jpg

Thoughts fluttered through my mind, came and went, as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. The darkness around us began to melt away as the sky turned a dark gray, then burgundy, and then a dark rosy color.We climbed and climbed some more. We passed through poor neighborhoods built almost vertically on the mountain side, in which many Kurdish and Iraqi families lived. Laundry hung outside window panes and shops were shuttered closed. We passed beyond the houses until it was only the rocks, the steps and us. We kept climbing.

Nearing the top of the mountain, as I reached a point at which I didn’t think I could make it anymore, and stood at the side of the steps gasping like a fish out of water, a small cat strode nonchalantly up to me, sat in front of me, and stared at me pityingly. She climbed a few steps, looked back at me, and then climbed a few more, as if to encourage me to keep going.

I kept going. It was now nearing the time of shuruq and I was still not at the top. I reached the point at which there were no more stairs. I saw my husband and his friend at a point high above me. “The sun is about to rise!” They motioned that I had to go just a bit further. I kept climbing, not caring about my strained legs or the pain in my lungs. I just had to make it.

Finally, I arrived.

These are the types of moments that inspire poets.

My body weary, lungs aching, the air cold and sharp. Reaching a point at which I could stand steadily, turning, and taking in the sight before me: the city of Damascus, spread from horizon to horizon, like a blanket unfolded. The red, red sun making its first appearance, and then slowly ascending the sky.

I just filled my eyes with this vision, trying to soak this moment into my skin, so that I could live it again and again. I could only hang on to one word: it was gorgeous.

sunrise-on-the-city.jpg

Day and night merge and turn, and each and every morning the sun faithfully rises to her accorded place, since the beginning of her creation. How many eyes took in this vision before me, the rising sun and the ancient city of Damascus? I felt connected with a million other souls from history, our blood flowing in the same rhythmic course, our hearts beating in the same cadence. I am a child of a long line of seekers, a successor of those who knew the secret of this world and its Lord.

Subhan’Allah, to the One who teaches us, each moment of our lives a lesson by which to learn; each day the rising sun striking a metaphor for us, of the innumerable opportunities we have to rise from darkness again, and again, no matter how many times we fall.

 

sunrise-over-damascus.jpg

Published in: on January 14, 2007 at 9:40 am  Comments (6)  

some pictures…

As salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah,If you are interested in seeing what Damascus is like from a visual perspective, check out my sister’s blog, Road to Jannah. In her series of posts called ‘Road to Damascus’ she’s put up lots of beautiful pictures from her visit to Shaam and most of the major sights in Syria. She has a lot of talent with photography, masha’Allah 🙂

I want my blog to be more about ‘feeling’ Shaam through writing rather than seeing it  (hopefully you guys are feeling it :)) but here are a few interesting/random pics I’ve taken in my time here…

taxi.jpg

I’m not sure if it’s clear (you can click to enlarge), but the writing on the back of the taxi says: ‘Perfume your mouth with prayers and blessings on the Prophet (peace be upon him).’ These types of statements, encouraging people to pray on the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) can be found on the back or sides of most taxis and buses in Damascus. Salah ‘ala an-Nabi is something that’s so entrenched in Syrian culture.  If someone is speaking and forgets what they’re about to say, instead of saying ‘umm’ or ‘uhh’ they say ‘Allahumma salli’ ‘ala sayyidina Muhammad’! Occassionally you’ll find a bowl of candy on the counter in a shop, with a sign that says ‘Salah ‘ala an-Nabiy’; meaning take a candy, but don’t say thank you, instead take it and say a short prayer on the Prophet (saw). It’s also said by someone when they get angry, and if someone is trying to calm someone down when he/she is upset they’d encourage him/her to pray on the Prophet (saw).

I remember that in my first Ramadan here there were a number of times when I saw guys on the street, or getting out of their cars, about to punch each other’s lights out 🙂 This was during the day in Ramadan, and I couldn’t understand why people were being *more* irritable at a time when they should have been less; but someone told me that it’s because smokers are extremely quick-tempered during this time (not being able to smoke while fasting), hence the road rage and fist fights. (btw this is only a few cases, most people here are very nice in Ramadan :))

When this type of thing occurs every male within the vicinity, whether they’re young or old, intercedes in the fight, even though they don’t know who they are or what they’re fighting about. So a group of men would surround them, and some of them would take one guy to the side, and some of them would take the other, and they would tell each of them: “Salah ‘ala an-Nabi! Salah ‘ala an-Nabi!” And each would be raging mad, but he would say it, because a person who doesn’t say salah ‘ala an-nabiy is considered bakheel (stingy).

It’s really nice that you find this strong love for the Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa salam) here among everybody, even among people that are not particularly religious.

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On a corner bus stop. While it was somewhat cool to see my name posted all around Damascus, I was surprised to see this poster… I think, unfortunately, what a lot of Syrians don’t realize is that what makes Syria a beautiful and unique place is the vibrancy of its history and its traditions.  By taking on more and more of Western culture, they’re losing out. I was really shocked to see another poster for a jazz concert that was going to take place at the citadel of Damascus.  The citadel was used during Salahudin’s time to defend against Crusader attacks, and it was later the place in which the scholar Ibn Taymiyyah was imprisoned! It’s also just a few steps down from the maqam of the sahabi Abu Darda. In my opinion, these types of events are so discordant and jarring in relation to the sacredness of these places and people; but this mesh of old and new, tradition and change, is something very characterestic to Syria.

more to come insha’Allah…

Published in: on January 7, 2007 at 2:14 pm  Comments (1)  

eid mubarak

eid-salah-in-abou-nour.jpg

Eid Prayer at Jami’a Abou Nour

Rukn ad-Deen, Damascus, Syria

Dec. 29th, 2006

Published in: on January 2, 2007 at 8:03 pm  Comments (4)  

Nawa

It was bitter cold the first time we went to Nawa. I remember wearing layer upon layer of black, gloves, a thick scarf over another, a muffler wrapped around my neck. It was early morning right before Eid, on the Day of Arafah. The trip was unofficially planned by some of the brothers, and word got around, as it somehow always does. Nawa is the home town of Imam Nawawi, a scholar of fiqh from the seventh century after Hijra.

We walked towards the masjid where we were to meet, and waited, and waited. You have to get used to this in Shaam: often, being on time means that you’re early. We watched as the small shops around the masjid began to open, setting up their wares. A man set out croissants on a table in front of his grocery store. An old woman sat in an empty space between two shops, settling a few crates of apples and oranges in front of her to sell to passersby.

It was just after sunrise. We could hear some recitation going on inside the masjid, so I went in to see what was happening. At Abou Nour, the sisters’ prayer area is three floors, overlooking the brothers’ prayer area. I remember when I first visited it, I felt like a princess in one of those elevated balconies at a coliseum, watching a performance going on below.

Looking down I saw a group of about thirty men sitting behind an imam, all with their hands raised, praying for forgiveness… “Ya Allah, we are knocking on Your door, so do not turn us away. Please forgive us on this special day, this day of Arafah, and forgive us thereafter. Ya Allah, do not allow us to leave this masjid without your forgiveness being sent down upon us, and do not allow this day to be complete without forgiving the hujjaj at Mt. Arafah…”

I returned outside, and slowly people began to gather. There are about twenty-five of us, that pile into a small, beat-up old bus. No heat. I take the window seat, and cover my face with my muffler niqab style. It’s so early. I want to sleep. But it’s so cold, and the rumbling and up and down movement of the bus prevents me from rest. I push the curtain away from the window, and watch as we pass through Damascus. Shops are still closed, the streets are empty; it’s all urban sprawl and cement. We exit the city, a long strip of highway ahead of us and empty landscape: rough rocky sand, mountains in the distance, and sometimes nothing at all but the road and morning fog. The sky a bleak gray, the sun somewhere unseen.

We start to see houses, spread far apart, colorful in a dusky way; that faded orange, that miami kind of light green, terra cotta. The houses are small squares, little more than shacks, with colorful clothing hanging on the rooftops, and sometimes a carpet hung half way down to be dried by the sun. They are the only spots of bright color in the otherwise muted surroundings. There are some bedouins, walking with their skinny sheep or goats, red and white checkered cloths tied back from their sun-beaten faces. It reminds me of India.

Nawa is a small town. We see garages, worn down buildings, nothing higher than two stories, chalky styled writing painted on the fronts of buildings instead of proper signs. Slowly everything takes on the name ‘Imam Nawawi’ – whose grave we came to see. ‘Imam Nawawi Bookstore’; ‘Imam Nawawi Groceries’; ‘Imam Nawawi Butcher’. He’s the home-town hero here.

The graveyard where he is buried is small, and at an incline. There are small headstones and plaques marking the other graves, jutting out between a few pieces of wild grass, some encircled by small stones. There’s a path leading upwards, to the top of the hill, where his maqam is: there, there is a squat square building, about the size of a room, with no roof. As you look at it from the entry of the graveyard, you see long, stark branches stretching out from within. At this hour there’s an interesting play of light and shadow and the room actually seemed to have an inner glow.

nawa-picture.jpg

We enter. There is only a huge tree, expansive at it’s base with high branches reaching out to the sky. There are no leaves. The floor around the tree has been tiled; around the edge of the room is a ledge for people to sit. One wall has a number of plaques, explaining who Imam Nawawi was, his greatness as a scholar and his contributions to Islamic history.

There’s a cloth hung on a branch from the tree; attached to some strings that somehow is able to enclose part of the area for women. I pull the curtain around me and sit. The brothers sit on the other side, and one of them gives a talk on Imam Nawawi’s life. He was a phenomenal scholar, who dedicated his entire life to learning, never marrying for fear that he could not give his wife her proper rights while so immersed in study. He would take something like sixteen classes a day, and he would never ‘go’ to sleep; only when he fell asleep in his books would he take his rest. He like us, came from his hometown to Damascus to study, and he made good use of his time; and we should do the same. Almost every Muslim household in the world has a copy of his famous work, Riyadh as-Saliheen; he is the foremost scholar in the Shafi’i school; and his wide acceptance and his love by the generality of Muslims, of all methodologies and schools of thought, is a good sign, of Allah’s pleasure.

The story of his maqam: Imam Nawawi was a Shafi’i, and the prevalent opinion in the Shafi’i school is that it is not permitted to build structures over graves; and he specifically requested that nothing be built on his grave after he died. After he passed away, people went against his wishes, and built a structure over his grave anyway, including a dome. After some time, it is said that a tree began to grow, until it toppled the dome entirely.

I’m not really into all that ‘heebie-jeebie’ stuff people say they encounter at the graves of righteous people (for lack of a better expression), and having visited a number of graves here in Damascus and in the surrounding area I can say that I know that at least for myself, I am not one who normally has amazing spiritual experiences at them. but, I did feel something at this grave. A calmness, a settling, a disconnection almost from everyday worries and thoughts. I made many resolutions there, of things I wanted to accomplish and do with my time in Damascus. I can’t say if that came from something Allah blessed that place with, or from an internal state.

Some women entered my enclosed area, three Syrian ladies, older in age, who lived nearby. After asking me some questions about where I was from, our group, etc., they gave me some candy and invited me to their house for tea.

On our way back to Damascus, I watched as the sun embraced that same barren landscape and gave it life and color. There is something about these types of experiences that are beautiful and difficult at the same time. They are intense and heavy. It’s something that Allah will ask me about I’m sure: I gave you this experience that moved your soul, even just for a moment. What did you do with it? Where are its fruits in your life?

And it’s also intensely beautiful, because from it I know the grace and kindness of Allah upon me. Who am I, that Allah brought me to this experience, opened my heart to its beauty, and moved me? What did I do to deserve or earn that? It’s not from me, or because of me, but Him, subhanahu wa ta’ala. From His generosity, that He not only teaches us how to get close to Him, but that He helps us get there, step by step.

That God should love me is more wonderful
Than that I so imperfectly love Him.
My reason is mortality, and dim
Senses; His–oh, insupportable–
Is that He sees me. Even when I pull
Dark thoughts about my head, each vein and limb
Delights Him, though remembrance in Him, grim
With my worst crimes, should prove me horrible.

And He has terrors that he can release.
But when He looks He loves me; which is why
I wonder; and my wonder must increase
Till more of it shall slay me. Yet I live,
I live; and He has never ceased to give
This glance at me that sweetens the whole sky.

Mark van Doren

Published in: on December 28, 2006 at 8:44 pm  Comments (5)  

rain

as salaamu alaykum wa rahmatullah,

Here’s something I wrote last winter about the scarcity of rain in Damascus… unfortunately, the same thing is happening this year… may Allah shower beneficial rain upon Shaam this year, ameen.

—-

In Damascus last year, winter approached us in disguise.

We were told, before we made our journey here, that winters in Syria were surprisingly cold: chilly, with lots of rain, and on occasion in the foregoing years the streets of Damascus and its surrounding area were actually covered with snow. So as the last months of the year approached, we began to brace ourselves to endure a cold and bitter season. However, as October slipped into November, the rain, snow, and unpleasant weather did not make an appearance. The days were uncommonly warm, some days even hot, and walks to school or the souq or various places in our neighborhood were pleasant, the sun shining overhead and the breeze mild. Our laundry continued to hang on the corded lines outside our balcony to be dried by the sun, and all the other balconies were ornamented in much the same way well into the winter months.

Somehow, November quickly turned into December, and instead of enjoying the uncommonly pleasant weather, the people of Damascus began to worry. Rain was a much needed resource for the country’s agriculture and for the well being of the crops, the animals, and the people alike. Eyes scanned the sky each day for signs of rain, but the sun continued to shine and embrace everyone with its September-like warmth. People began to wonder: Where is the rain?

Never before had I thought so much about this often overlooked blessing from Allah: rain from the heavens. How much we depend on Allah even for the simplest things, and how helpless we are without His generosity to us.

Instead of brushing off this change in weather as a mere result of atmosphere and temperature changes, the people of Syria had a shared sensitivity about these matters, and about their connection to Allah’s mercy and His displeasure. The khutbahs and lessons at the masjid and schools began to center around this topic: Why are we being deprived of rain? Allah doesn’t deprive a people without reason; we need to seek His forgiveness. We know from the traditions of Rasulullah, salAllahu alayhi wasalam, that a people are not deprived of rain unless they withhold zakah, or they have fallen into many sins. We need to make amends so that we are worthy of this blessing from Allah the Most High.

Once or twice, dark clouds wrote a promise of rain above Damascus; but nothing fell from the sky.

Finally, it was decided to perform Salatul Istisqaa – the prayer for rain (literally, ‘the prayer for seeking the quenching of thirst’) that was performed by the Prophet, salAllahu alayhi wa salam, on the occasion of drought, and that should be performed by any people who encounter the same. This prayer must be done by all the people of an area at one time, and in one place. Everyone should come in their work clothes, simple and unrefined, to show a sense of humbleness. It is from the sunnah that half way through his khutbah, the khatib actually takes off his outer garment (worn over the thaub) and turns it inside out and wears it that way… I’m assuming to show humility and a sense of urgency in the request. The date was set for Friday the 16th of November, a little after the middle of winter had passed, with no rain having yet fallen. It was planned to take place at Masjid al-Umawiyy, that ancient site in which so many righteous people prayed, and sought knowledge, and found closeness to Allah.

As we waited for a taxi that morning, I looked upwards and saw the sky completely gray, as if promising rain, just as it looked the entire day before. Yet the sky did not shed a single tear as we made our way to Masjid al-Umawiyy.

That morning, the masjid, the largest I’ve ever seen, hugely expansive with room for thousands, began to fill slowly, and was, in less than an hour, filled to its entire capacity. The salah was performed, the khutbah said, and finally the duaa… Thousands of hands turned towards the heavens, asking Allah to bless us with His generosity…

O Allah, bless us with rain, the beneficial of it and not the harmful of it; bless us with it now, and not later.

O Allah, You have promised us that if we call upon You, You will answer us. Here we are before You, so O Allah, fulfill Your promise to us.

O Allah, we seek Your forgiveness and Your mercy; do not abandon us in our time of need.

O Allah, You are the Rich, and we are poor, and we have no one to turn to except You.

O Allah, we have gathered here in Your house, as Your guests, so do not turn us away without responding to our request.

O Allah, bless us with rain from the heavens.

After the duaas were made, I left the masjid and entered the courtyard, thinking that the salah was over. From the courtyard, underneath what used to be the Bayt al-Maal, I watched as the gray sky released its first drops of water. Those who did not fit inside the masjid for the salah were sitting on carpets and mats in the courtyard, and they turned their gazes heavenwards as rain drizzled down softly.

The prayer was not over as I had assumed, and a different shaykh came to the forefront and began making more duaa, and all of us in the courtyard began to pray with him. I swear, that as soon as the shaykh finished the last word of his duaa, rain began to fall from the sky. It was amazing. Raindrops cascaded down the external walls of the masjid, and pooled on the marble floor of the courtyard.

As people left the masjid, the look of wonder and awe on people’s faces was overwhelming. People stretched forth their hands, touching the rain with their fingertips, turning their faces to the sky to feel raindrops on their cheeks, as if to confirm that it was true. Children played in the courtyard, having fun sliding along it’s now slippery wet floor, and others took out umbrellas or covered their heads with scarves or shawls as they exited the masjid, or watched the rain from under the shade of the masjid’s outer vestibules.

Subhan’Allah… as I watched this beautiful scene, I was thinking: we are so much like Damascus. We are these walking deserts, so many of us with hearts that are dying of thirst, barren and dry, bereft of the sweet nourishment of being close to Allah. But how easy is it for us to ask Allah to quench this thirst of ours?

Perhaps if we just raise our hands and ask Him, His mercy will pour down on us just like it did in Damascus that day.

Published in: on December 19, 2006 at 9:20 am  Comments (4)  

Some observations about Syrian women…

Not to get all National Geographic on you, but it’s definitely interesting living in a place that has such a defined culture.  I know, I know most places in the world have distinctive cultures (duh) but living in the U.S., in a family that was not too big on being ‘Indian’ has left me relatively culture-less I think, which makes it all the more interesting to observe others…    

Anyways, here are some interesting things that I’ve noticed about women in Damascus in my time here (sorry for the generalizations, and I’m sure there are exceptions):

  — Their dress:  First of all, from what I’ve seen, generally speaking, no one in Damascus wears traditional Arab clothing (the colorful abayas and jilbabs you see in the souq).  Everyone wears Western clothing, i.e., long skirts (denim is really in), pants, jeans etc.  The trend now is towards tattered skirts (the bottom looking like it was cut in a zig-zag fashion), and towards ‘suits’, i.e. long skirts and short jackets in the same color, khaki, denim, funky orange, etc.   Most women here wear hijab, and many also wear the monteau.  Monteaus are basically chic coats, similar to the kind women wear in the U.S. over a suit or a dress, but they are ankle length, and worn over normal clothes when a woman goes outside of her home.  It’s like a jilbab, but it’s not loose or flowy, but more fitted.  The typical Syrian hijab is tucked in, tight around the face, and not flowy or big.  Women almost always wear high-heeled shoes, and a coordinating purse.  The overall effect is a look that’s “smart” in the British sense of the word: Women always look well-dressed, neat, ironed, and well-groomed, with nothing shabby or untidy.         

I was in a photo shop in our neighborhood the other day, and a woman walked in wearing a perfectly tailored charcoal gray monteau, a black hijab tucked in, and khimar the Syrian style — a second black scarf, wrapped around from the back, and appropriately pinned so that the bottom half of her face was also concealed.  She had fair skin, dark sunglasses; a chunky ring of gold on her finger and then a ring of diamonds; a black purse, and killer-high heeled shoes; the perfect example of the Syrian woman; feminine, Muslim, confident, and well put together.   

How they manage to maintain this is beyond me, who usually returns home after a walk in the souq or school with the bottom six inches of my clothes covered in dust, and my hijab needing a repinning 🙂  The high-heels also astonish me, since the roads here are not always smooth, and I’ve fallen myself more than once wearing normal flat shoes…  

The monteau is also something that takes some getting used to.  I’m not comfortable with the idea of uniformity.  My first response to it was, does hijab necessarily have to mute your personality?  But their perspective is:  The uniformity is only in the public sphere.  Why do random people on the street have the right to ‘know’ you or your personality?  That’s something you show to the people that are important in your life, not to just anybody.  (And this flows into their mannerisms in public too, read below…)  

The ‘Bedouin’ women (that come from the outskirts of the city) are very different.  The older women are usually stocky, with tanned and weathered faces, and wear velvet jilbabs or black dresses that have elastic at the waist.  They wear black hijabs, and then a colorful one tied on top bandanna style.  We often see them in our neighborhood on the weekends, because one of the local masjids provides free Quran courses for them and their children.  They tend to be loud and bold, as opposed to the more prim and sophisticated manners of the city folks 🙂   

Some women wear niqab in the way I described above, and others wear it similarly, but pin the second scarf under their nose, instead of on its bridge.  Some women, especially the older ones, wear niqab by draping a second cloth over their head, that shrouds their entire face.  I think this style is slowly fading though, because it’s not as often seen as the others. 

 — Their behavior in public:  Women are very prim and proper 🙂  Speaking and laughing loudly is considered uncultured, as well as smiling or talking to shop-keepers, drivers, etc.  Women though are very independent in Damascus; they drive, take public transportation on their own, go out to eat at restaurants, work, study, etc.  I think this is one of the reasons why many single sisters come here to study… the culture does not have a lot of restrictions on what women can and cannot do. 

— Their knowledge: There are many, many knowledgeable women in Damascus, which is an extremely refreshing thing to see.  They have really taken the forefront when it comes to Quranic studies, memorization and Tajweed; and every Shari’ah college has a parallel program for women.   This is one of the things I love about living here: meeting strong and knowledgeable Muslim women, whose philosophy is that women, though having different responsibilities from men, have their own unique and important role to play in service of this deen, and they put that into practice in their actions. It’s not just talk, and their ability to balance being a mother/wife/daughter with working effectively for Islam is something we need more of in the US, where I think we fall into extremes.      

 — Marriage: There is a really traditional understanding of marriage and a lot of focus on it, especially for the young girls.  There is a lot of emphasis in established families on preserving a girl’s reputation, by making sure she’s not going out late, hanging out with the wrong crowd, etc.  In this respect I feel that Syria is much like many other traditional Muslim cultures (Pakistan, India, etc) but not to the same extent.  It’s considered odd for a man to help out at home or in the kitchen, and the pressure for having children comes immediately after someone gets married.  I guess it balances out, because there is also a strong sense of manhood and responsibility among the Syrians; it’s shameful for a man to be unemployed or fall short in providing for his family, and out-right wrong for his wife to feel obliged to work.     In many ways women in Syria are an interesting blend of traditional and modern; much like its landscape.  Walking down the street from my apartment, you will see an eight-hundred year old masjid; and directly across from it, an internet cafe.  Or a student of knowledge, wearing traditional clothing, looking as if he stepped out of a long ago century, hop a suzuki to get to a masjid on the mountain side.  That’s just life in Shaam 🙂   walhamdulillah. 

Published in: on December 7, 2006 at 12:18 pm  Comments (45)