Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shrines of Damascas, An Interfaith Experience

When traveling in Iran, Turkey and Syria I have witnessed the convivial atmosphere of people of different faiths living together. In Damascas, my friend Janet and I came upon this shrine in the old Jewish Quarter for Say'yeda Roqayya, The Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter. It would be one of many Muslim, Christian or Jewish shrines we would visit during our travels in Syria, including those of St. Paul, Saint Thecla (a convert of Paul), John the Baptist, Ibn Arabi, among others. I was told that the neighborhood of Roqayya's shrine is home to many Shiite Muslims from Iran.

After borrowing proper robes and head covering, my friend and I were welcomed into the mosque and the women's sanctuary beside Roqayya's tomb. Here pilgrims chatted and wept together as they paid homage to this revered saint. The women were delighted that we took the time to visit with them. Many hugged us, kissed us on both of our cheeks and asked to take photos with us. The video below will give you a feel for the mood of this moment.

Walking in the footsteps of these holy people was a treat for me as I have written characters based on some of them in a collection of stories Daughters of the Desert: Tales Of Remarkable Women From the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions.
For more information and images about the interfaith aspects of my trip, please visit the pages on my website for this book as well as the Middle East section.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Storyteller of Damascas

It has been a long while since I have posted and I apologize. I spent January and February finishing a novel and then set out to do research in Turkey and Syria during March, April and May. I will post more from this trip in the coming weeks on this blog as well as on the Middle Eastern pages on my website. Highlights included meeting with writers, editors, translators and publishers at Bogazici University in Istanbul; interviewing a search and rescue specialist who worked for The Turkish Red Crescent for a novel-in-progress; learning to felt hats worn by the whirling dervishes; visiting with friends and traveling in Syria.

While in Damascas I met Abu Shadi, a storyteller who has been carrying on the tradition in the Coffee Shop Ainfora beside the Ummayid Mosque. (Among other things, this mosque houses a shrine for John the Baptist.) Since time immemorial Arab men gathered in tea houses to drink tea, smoke waterpipes and talk. Even under Ottoman rule they continued to maintain this aspect of their culture though the cafes were subject to scrutiny by their new rulers. Men whose wives were giving birth waited in the tea house among friends who would congratulate or console them, should the baby or mother die. Storytellers, like series writers today, always ended their tales with a cliff hanger, so people would return to the coffee house the next night. Check out the Middle Eastern pages on my website in the coming weeks for more photos of this most expressive and conversant storyteller as well as to view a video of Abu Shadi telling his story.