4 Pages from Salihiyyah – Damascus, July 2005
and know that grace selects the one who is present”
Qasida by Abu Madyan
At the foot of the Qasiun mountain, north of the ancient nucleus of Damascus, lies the green dome covering the grave of Muhyi al-Din ibn al `Arabi. Next to it is a mosque, surrounded by pulsating market streets. To the East is the historical Hanabila-mosque, built by those who were driven from al-Quds by the crusaders. Great mawlids where held there in the past, and many female hadith narrators sat to teach in it. Further down lies the modern Shari’a institute of Abu Nur. From there the Suzuki cabs climb up the mountain above Rukn al-Din, where Turks sought and found an environment more supportive of the Deen than Atatürk’s. Going westwards, one gets to the al-`Afif – the old quarters of “the virtuous.” On the hill sides above it is the region of “the immigrants” – al-Muhajirin. The name refers to Russians and Kurds who settled in Damascus at the time of the Salah al-Din (himself a kurd), around the time of the last crusade. At that time the entire region at the foot of the Qasioun mountain was called al-Salihiyyah – “abode of the rightous”.
Muhiy al-Din ibn al-`Arabi lived before all that. It is said that his teacher and master once sent him to fill a water jar to its brim and then carry it throught the crowded market, taking care not to spill a single drop. On his return, the he asked him: What did you see in the market? And he answered: My master, I was unable to notice anything in the market, because my mind was absorbed in the effort not to spill any water.
The story came to my mind while walking these market streets for the first time some four years ago, and I made it my intention not to look right nor left, just follow the straight path ahead.
That was not diffciult at that time, since I didn’t know my way around. There were not so many choices to be made, and hence not many things that could destract me.
Now everything is different. I move freely all over Sham, winding my way though the narrow streets of the old city or roaming the suburbs that emerge at an explosive rate south of the Damascus, frequenting the the new-rich people of Abu Rumanah and Maliki or poorer people of upper Muhajirin, young identity-seeking modern intellectuals or the dispossessed nobility of traditional scholarship. Everywhere and nowhere is my place. And at every moment I have to remind myself that my time here is limited, that I need to focus on what is essential, and not allow myself to be distracted, else I will return with a half-full or empty water jar.
Between the resting place of Muhiy al-Din ibn al-`Arabi and al-`Afif is the house of the Syrian dentist Dr Ahmad and his lovely wife Liliana, who set out to try their luck in Europe. In the mean time they are rentiing their home to three foreign students, one of which is me. I am sitting in the balcony upstaris, where we have our rooms for study and rest. By my side are the flower pots where lady Liliana has written instructions for watering, and in front of me is a pomegranate tree tree overshadowing the the enclsosed courtyard. The lush greenery against the bright white walls under the light blue sky unfold a remarkable serenity, so unexpected that it appears almost unreal, when entering the door from the business and noise of the market. Stepping into the quiet courtyard, all of a sudden one finds oneself as if in a different world. Out there one needs fix the eye firmly on the stone pavement, otherwise one’s intentions will dissolve and dissipate in all directions – here inside thoughts tend to automatically focus around an invisible pole rising from the centre of the yard to the summit of the sky.
What I have gained over the past years is not mere increase in knowledge or fluency in language – it is the ability to grasp concepts, build arguments and assimilate thinking structures. Sciences are built upon logic – definiton – theorem – proof. Terms are defined, statements made and proofs presented. However, before all that there has to be an understanding of underlying concepts, else we don’t know what we are talking about – this is called tasawwur – conceptualization. It appears that my feet have touched that ground on which to stand. Or in other words: I am now ready to begin my studies.
Early morning hours over a cup of coffey – that is the best time, and the most pleasant place to be is up here on the balcony. At noontime one seeks refuge from the sun in the livning room downstairs, until the late afternoon throws its shadows over the courtyard and a soft evening breeze invites to return to the balcony. The wind always rises at the time of sunset, and leaves behind a thin layer of sand, as if it wanted to remind us that we are infact the middle of the desert.
If it takes four years to begin, how long will it take to complete? I don’t know, and it may be meaningless to ask. The courtyard and the tree, the white walls and the daily routines – all that gives an illusion of settledness, whereas the truth is that the lush freshness of this oasis is more of a temporary halt. I never know in advance where and when I will find it, nor how long I can sit and drink from its water – I just live these moments as they are given, grasping the day, as advised in a famous poem of one of the teachers of Muhyi al-Din ibn al-`Arabi:
– and know that grace selects the one who is there”