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Byline by MJ Akbar:A Syria Diary
The sun rises at 4.30. It is already high by 7.30 and will fade only at 7.45 in the evening. The sun puts in a 15-hour day, but Amman begins to take it easy after a latish lunch. Government offices wrap up by three, having wrapped in at eight. The one exception is the border between Jordan and Syria, which works through the night. There is Friday freedom on the highways as we race from Amman to Damascus in the clean sharp light of the morning.
Tourism begins at the border. Can a queue be fat instead of lean, plural instead of singular, jostling instead of obedient? Yes. The Jordanian officials are patient. Everyone is nice; they might even be well-meaning. The older Arab women, many in a chador, make excellent use of lament, passports clutched in hands extended in supplication, eager to finish formalities. The younger women wear T-shirts and smiles, and chat at nearby tables while their documents are processed: they are young, and time is on their side. The young men loiter, trying to look busy. I am lucky. The counter for foreigners is empty. Unfortunately, it is empty on both sides. A supervisor recognises my helplessness, stretches a hand across a seated officer’s head, takes my passport. "Hindwi?" Hindwi. The common signature of a hundred governments thuds into the booklet: the ubiquitous rubber stamp, invented, believe it or not, by a British ICS Sahib posted to Hooghly district in Bengal in the 19th century, who forgot to patent his invention. I get my passport back with a smile. Arabs, everywhere, are gracious hosts.
The Syrian check-posts are more military, but immigration is more laid-back. The travellers do not care very much about the delineation of counters; everyone owns the shortest queue. The face of a young man in uniform wanders between semi-laughter and semi-exasperation at the periodic tantrums of his computer. A swarthy traveller who forgot to shave a fortnight back, and forgot to bathe that morning, shoves me aside and opens a conversation which does not stop till it is complete. A second man sidles up. He is more polite, possibly because he has a piece of paper instead of a passport. The ranking immigration officer, who is lounging on his feet, takes a look at the paper with the resigned air of a professional facilitator. He is clearly a man of experience, weight and power: the experience is in his eyes, the weight in his stomach and the power in his demeanour. The paper goes into his pocket. My turn comes, and the passport is returned quickly, politely. The room is filling up with families. Three young women chat away the waiting minutes. One has a T-shirt suggesting that diamonds are her best friends. Her friends have less garrulous clothes. Other girls are in long skirts or jeans. No one wears a veil. A friend in Amman later explains that the veil is part of Persian culture, a fashion that spread east rather than west, until the thin gauze of Iran coagulated into the dark cowl of Afghanistan and the tribal frontier of Pakistan.
The searing brown of the desert, already softening in north Jordan, suddenly gives way to green and yellow, the colours of agriculture. Rivers have replaced rock and sand. The land of Euphrates has grass and wheat farms. The media-nurtured image of Syria as an impoverished nation, perhaps a necessary adjunct of the axis-of-evil syndrome, is an exaggeration. This isn’t El Dorado, but it isn’t Starvation Valley either. The economy has solid roots in food, oil and natural resources. The cars on the streets of Damascus are a mix of old and new, and thin dust seems to hang over the urban infrastructure but the shops are full and the kebabs in restaurants exquisite. We drive to the top of a hill for a bird’s-eye view of one of the oldest cities of the world, and it lies before us like a becalmed eagle, its outstretched wings forming the boundaries of an ever-growing metropolis. Silence, punctuated by the urban rattle, is the mood on Fridays. Damascus takes its holidays seriously. Around noon, the call of the muezzins wakes up a string of mosques.
There is a hint of Byzantine in the dominant mosque of the city, built by the Omayyad rulers 13 centuries ago, surrounded by a warren of bazaars, hamams and seminaries that could have hosted a million tourists if George Bush was not in constant search of enemies. The steepled walls and dome of the prayer hall inherit the city’s past, when it was a jewel in the dominions of the Christian Byzantine empire of Constantinople. Damascus fell to the brilliant thrust of Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, but has never rejected its history. The Patriarch of the Syrian Christian Church still lives in the city, and the services of his church have never stopped. Through the difficult centuries of the Crusades, Damascus was a constant target of Europe’s princes. Damascus often tottered, but never fell.
A mufti in black turban and flowing robes addresses an eager gathering of women in black, interspersed by a few men, in a corner of the courtyard as I enter the mosque. The scene could belong to any of the 14 centuries of the Islamic calendar. The huge, even awesome, prayer hall is stitched together by carpets and lit by chandeliers. Smack in the middle, to the left of the mimbar from where the imam leads the prayer, is a shrine protected by golden bars. This is the grave of Hazrat Yahya, more familiar to the Christian world as John the Baptist. Hundreds of photographs, passport-size and passport-face, are strewn around the grave, calling cards of young men who have sought the intercession of the Prophet in their prayers to Allah. There is nothing surprising or remarkable about this. It is on this land, from Mecca and Medina to Jerusalem and Galilee and the Dead Sea and Damascus, that the Prophets have preached their message to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The sun is hard but not harsh, hot but not humid, as I return to the courtyard. I walk a brief while in the shade of the corridor before the eye is arrested by a sign on a simple, undemonstrative door. The simplicity is deceptive. This is the second shrine of Imam Husayn, the martyred son of Hazrat Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the great poet-warrior who became the first Caliph of the Shias and the fourth Caliph of the Sunnis after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Husayn was killed, and his small band of followers massacred, by the forces of the Omayyad kings, who built this mosque, on the desert-field of Kerbala in Iraq. It is a sin commemorated each year during the month of Mohurrum by Muslims of all persuasions. Pilgrims flock to the splendid Husayn shrine at Kerbala in Iraq, where his body is buried. This is literally true. Husayn’s head was decapitated and brought to the court in Damascus as a trophy for the tyrannical Omayyad king, Yazid. This head was buried on the premises of this mosque.
A chant from the soul rises from the women clasping to the marble of the small mausoleum, their tears indistinguishable from their prayers. Yazid, who claimed victory in 780, has been eaten by worms, lost even to the desolation of archives. Husayn lives on, powerful, unforgettable. A martyr never dies.