Tuesday, August 14, 2007

I Walked into Damascus! And My Sister Ripped My Heart Out!


About two weeks back, on a spur of the moment decision, after a four hour delay in which our group had to leave Marium at the Syrian border, and almost getting cheated by the shadiest chauffer in the Middle East, I walked into Damascus!

For me, this was the first time I’ve felt international adventure. Amongst this group of globe trekkers and international posters, I feel pretty juvenile. But slowly I’m learning the ropes that I have to learn in order to travel this part of the world and reconnect with my identity.

As the sook (market) opened up, I caught my first glimpse of the Great Mosque of Damascus. I had studied this building in an Islamic Architecture course in Hanes Art Center, ironically, the same building where Nasser taught me the little Arabic that is helping sustain me here. We walked into the front of the courtyard:

My sister, cousin, and friend must have thought I was crazy because I just stopped, looked around and kept turning the full 360 degrees not saying a word. Maybe it was because I knew this buildings significance or maybe it’s because I tend to over think things, but to stand there in that 1300 yr old building brought all these new thoughts to the surface.

I realized this building was built at a time when Arabs and Muslims were at the forefront of intellectual thought: math, philosophy, politics, medicine, arts, sociology. A time when the so called “West” was defining itself in relation to the Middle East. A time when Europeans would have been proud to study at Arab universities! A time when Arabs/Muslims were united! A time when Arabs/Muslims were tolerant! A time when the people I descended from were the model! Where have we come and how did we get to today? At what point did we lose ourselves? Now in Amman, I can’t get away from Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, Hardees, and designer jeans! Now in Amman, a degree from an American university is worth more and pays more than a degree from Amman itself. What happened to my dishdash and kefeeyah? What happened to debkah?

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to stand in front to the tomb of Salahuddin and realize that we have our own heroes! I’ll never take anything away from the great accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, but it’s refreshing to know that I have my own heroes, my own history, my own identity. Why are all the Arabs asleep here? I’m very happy for David Beckham, but seriously! Wake UP!

As we walked back to the hotel room from the historical site, it was getting pretty dark. Over a busy street in Damascus that we had to cross, there is a bridge that allows you to cross after first ascending about 25 steps on either side. The overcrowding of this city makes climbing these steps quite a task, even on foot. As we got to the top and began to cross, I passed by this old man in dirty, tattered clothes sitting next to the concrete rail. His face was grimy and had probably not seen a razor blade in months. He was missing the bottom portion of his left leg and he had metal rods bracing both sides of the remaining section of thigh. He was sitting there, head on the concrete, not saying a word. One hand open on his lap, as hundreds of people, including myself, passed him by emotionless. My sister grabbed my shirt as I passed him and asked me for my wallet. I said her name in a kind of way that brothers do when they are trying to be condescending. Softly but sternly she said “give me your wallet!” I took out all the money I had in my pockets (saving my wallet because I knew we needed it) and gave it to her. She went over to the old man and put the money in his hand, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and said “God Bless You” in Arabic. After we descended the steps, I was reflecting on what had just happened and felt bad that I didn’t feel for him. I’m an American: pampered, shelter, spoiled, and free. I looked over at my sister and tears were streaming down her cheeks but she was trying not to cry. I put my hand on shoulder and again said her name in a way to imply “Come on? Are you serious?” I was just trying to make her feel better. Without looking at me she said, “It must have been so hard for him to make it up those steps” I can honestly say with those words she ripped my heart out and fed it to me. I looked away and kept my eyes open so the tears would run into my nose and no one would notice me cry. I couldn’t help but ask myself where is Islam? I came here, the Middle East, knowing I would be surrounded by Muslims and the site of the faith’s inception. This can’t be Islam! What have we forgotten?

In a single day, from a 1300 yr old building built at a time when Arabs pioneered thought, to a homeless Syrian man that seems to have been passed by everyone except my sister, I started to realize that Arabs have forgotten almost everything.

It was the first time, I walked in Damascus!


Lauren Jill Hatshepsut said...

Mike/Mohannen, Thank you. There are tears in my eyes. Jill

Matt said...

Beautiful post Mike.