A visit to the tomb of the great sufi sheikh muhi eddin in Damascus
I leave my shoes in a pigeonhole just inside the archway that leads through to the inner courtyard before edging past a group of men sitting cross-legged in a circle, chatting. Then I make my way down the steps pulling my scarf up over my head before entering the small mausoleum where the guardian – an old man in a gallabiyyah and white taqiyyah – nods and accepts some coins.
The room is like many I have seen in Syria – a bizarre mixture of reverence and tat. Ibn Arabi’s shrine is remarkably small though this doesn’t surprise me. It’s how I had imagined him – a short, benign old bloke who, for all his capacity to conceptualise and flit between metaphysical states, could probably enjoy a laugh or two with the locals.
The tomb is made of white marble – though marble that is old and worn – and stands on a plinth covered in black velveteen with gold lettering on it, all this encased within an ornamental brass cage. To give money, you post your offering through a wooden letterbox set into the brass bars and the cash passes down a homemade cardboard shute straight onto the ground within. The cage, I notice, is padlocked: even the guardians of sufi saints have to be careful, I suppose.
There are lots of people who have come to have a look at the old man’s shrine, many of them Turkish. I know this because when I try to speak to them in Arabic they look non-plussed until a man whispers where they are from. The men and women divide, the men disappearing behind a shabby green curtain while the women sit on the ground on the other side of the tomb. The Turkish group have brought their own imam, the way some package-tour groups are some times led by their favourite radio presenter or local DJ. The imam emerges from behind the green curtain muttering prayers, followed by the men who all click away with their digital cameras like Japanese visitors. Ibn Arabi’s shrine is important to these visitors: Konya, in Turkey, is home to the Mevlavi dervishes.
The room is full of plastic: dusty, plastic flowers, plastic lamp shades, plastic chairs. Two large orange plastic water containers stand at the side of the wall with an invitation to visitors to drink:Arab courtesy and kindliness is an ever-present quality.
In contrast to the plastic, the ceiling is lit by a chandelier hanging from a green and gold cupola but, when I raise my camera to take a picture of it, I find myself focusing on an ugly pair of over-bright fluorescent tubes within it. Like hospitality, fluorescent tubes, preferably green, are never far away in any Syrian mosque.
I settle down on the floor with my back to the wall and watch a beautiful young woman lift the delicate, diaphanous black veil from in front of her mouth in order to drink some water. How do I know she is beautiful when only her eyes are visible? Perhaps it is the fact that she is tall, her back upright. That her eyes are clear and bright. That her cloak is long and trails behind her so that she walks as if the earth and all its bounty was hers by right. She has a wedding ring on her finger and both her feet and her hands are newly decorated with henna. Maybe she is recently married.
Before leaving the shrine room, she stands in front of the guardian who reads aloud from the Quran as the woman with her – possibly her mother – gently pats her back in a companionable way. Between them, the three make a tableau of shared warmth that I can only envy.
Suddenly and sharply, this quiet scene is shattered by a small boy who throws the sort of two-year-old tantrum I had almost forgotten about. He is incandescent with anger as he is dragged down the steps to this green-lit room by his mother. The guardian, face impassive, digs deep into the pocket of his gallibaya and with fingers made clumsy with age, laboriously fumbles about until he finds what he is looking for: a handful of sweets which he holds out to the little boy. But the child gives the old man’s hand a sharp whack that sends the sweets scattering across the worn carpet. I am horrified and embarrassed for the mother but the guardian raises his hands to heaven, then clasps them together in resignation, looks apologetic as if the outburst were all his fault. The mother fails to be embarrassed, ignores the child and continues talking to her woman friend. The child’s angry howling fills the room and no one pays any attention to him nor appears to be annoyed or distracted by him – except me. Later, up in the courtyard, I see him happily playing hide and seek among the pillars while his mother chats on her cell phone.