Browsing Islam

DRAFT: On Attar of Roses


There is nothing wrong with the shopkeeper’s attar of roses, except that it is not from Oman. The counter is crowded with Yemeni frankincense and bags of Irani saffron. A clay bukhoor in the corner wafts sandalwood smoke; the shopkeeper’s assistant sloughs ash from coals with a spoon. The shop is half the size of my bedroom and packed floor to ceiling: boxes of perfume, green coffee beans, Quran bumper stickers, silver eyeliner wands.  Tarnished daggers with short thick blades hang like Christmas lights along the wall. They are the antithesis of the tiny glass vials which teeter emptily before me, each no bigger than my thumb. Bubbly swirls of colorful smoke decorate their lips. Angled sunlight drifts through their stems, illuminating dust.

Embroidered topis, black charcoal, square necklaces strung with obsolete coins:  like every other stand in the Muttrah souk, this one aims to fulfill all of one’s souvenir needs. We might as well be in Omani Disneyland.

The problem is that the vial of perfume now up for discussion was produced in the UAE. It is Swiss Arabian, a popular brand, and it smells fantastic: like roses and celery, green tea and sea water, blossoms and sunshine and dirt. I have the urge to bring my wrist to my nose again and again. When I get back to Dubai, I think to myself, I will have to get some.

In Oman, though, I want Omani. I want roses grown on Jabal Akhdar, high in the Hajar mountains. I want to peek through to the mountain’s gardens, to hear its splashing falaj.  I want the bottle I buy to remind me, yes, of dates picked in the sun, of blue throated lizards, of women, crouched over, working. “This is from the UAE, right?” I ask. “I was hoping for something from here.”

The shopkeeper does not find my indecision amusing.  A few minutes later, we are back out the door, armed with a box of tiny empty bottles. Each has been sealed in bubble wrap, so as to survive the voyage.  “They’ll make good gifts,” I say to Abdur-Rahman. He does not say anything. “It is probably better to let the sisters pick out their own perfumes anyway.” We wind our way back through the souk’s passages, until we have reached the entrance to the sea. I steal glances at the shops here, lining the opening. Kashmiri kurtas and pashmina shawls; boxes of Chinese jewelry. Laughter sounds from above; a British couple sits on a terrace drinking lemonade. A sign hanging on their balcony’s rail advertises biryani.

Is anyone here from Oman? I wait peevishly on the curb while Abdur-Rahman buys Vimto over ice. “We loved it when we were kids,” he offers me some. It is dark and sweet but not refreshing. I let my wrist linger near my nose. It is almost time to be going. We retrace our steps along the cornice, past mannequins wearing niqab.

Back in the car, Yahya is waiting. Abdur-Rahman slides into the front seat beside him; Isra is buckled beside me. The men begin chatting in soft Arabic; phrases drift into the backseat. Osama Bin Laden, the United States, Pakistan, the army. Half-understanding does nothing to improve my mood so I look out the window. Where have all the cars come from?  To where is everyone rushing?

I remember a Bob Marley poster printed in sepia, once hung in Jinevra’s dorm room. In it the singer is smiling. His head is tilted happily, his collar unbuttoned, his teeth are bright. The lyrics from Exodus are printed below: We know where we’re going,  we know where we’re from.  Is that so, I want to ask my fellow passengers along the Seeb highway.


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DRAFT: Al Qiblatain


I cannot tell from the arc of the stairs which way I am meant to go. How big of a prayer space should I be looking for? A few older women sit crouched under a concrete cove. Is the space before them all that there is? Am I meant to rise or remain? Hollyhocks and palm trees shush the muttering wind. I do not know what to do.

Climb the stairs, I will my limbs. When you arrive, you will likely find out if you are where you are meant to be. Bismillah, I say to Isra, and we start off with our right feet.  We have come to the Mosque of the Two Directions, Masjid al-Qiblatain.

Like dampness or dust, like something enclosed, the air up the stairs is powdery. Its taste recalls basements and attics: it is the smell of boxed sealed with tape, of washing powder and lime.

At the top of the stairs, a guard in black sits in a corner, sleeping. Her presence is reassuring. I have come to a place where there is something reckoned worth protecting. Climbing out from the stairwell, my feet touch carpet. Oxblood red, its thickness dampens the musalla’s evening sounds.

The women’s section is built up high, like a tree house, with grated walls protecting the privacy of the supplicants above and below. They do not see us and we do not see them, and Allah sees everything. Through the grate’s wide woven mesh of interlocking holes, I can make out discrete sections of the main musalla. It is lined with pillars. These in turn are painted white, with hollows cut into their faces to hold musahaf, gold and green. Clustered between the pillars are brothers in robes whose hands reach, beseechingly cupping. Please, they seem to be saying. Please, my Lord, Please.

It could be any other mosque, if you did not know about its history of change.  A beautiful mosque to be sure, with the spaces between its pillars forming a warren, a maze of places for the worshipper to come, to sit and to think. From far away, the columns and arches seem plain and clean, warm yellow-white. But from the faces of the pillars nearer to my peeping place, I become aware of the patterns woven into them. The color of bone, they are ornately engraved, geometrically enticing. Like the display of tiny, repeating skeletons that forms the curves of a coral reef, each inch of the pillars’ decoration invites contemplation.

We have come to this mosque to reflect on impermanence. We have come to remember the value of change.

When the community first arrived here, on the Medinan plain, Muslims faced Jerusalem when they wanted to pray. In accordance with the revelation, the companions learned to turn their faces toward the Farthest Mosque to pray. It was at the Mosque of the Two Directions that this practice was changed.

While leading one of the daily prayers, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) received a command in the form of a new verse of the Quran.


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Quba, Breathing (Part 2)


Watching the sisters, I wonder how many of my desires and doubts associated with this trip are really about belonging. It has been four months that we’ve been gone from Boston. Life in Dubai is undeniably blessed. We hear the athan five times a day. At dawn the stillness of the city allows the cries of five different muezzins to echo through my window, each stretching through time like the calling of whales. Materially, the Emirate is beyond reproach. All we are lacking is friends.

I have come to discover that one’s sense of belonging can develop only so far in the absence of friends. An American monk named Thomas Merton once wrote that the basic similarity shared across religions is the critical role that group transcendent experience plays in each. For Merton, community was a foregone conclusion, a requirement of practice.

If Merton’s assertion that religion requires group experience is correct, then the mosque in which I find myself is distinguished indeed. Here in masjid Quba, people have been coming to pray in congregation for longer than in any other mosque. This, I begin to understand, is Quba’s unique blessing: it saw the birth of our jamaat.

My chest begins to loosen. Perhaps it doesn’t so much matter whether or not the rebuilt masjid resembles its earlier self. The angels who join us together in prayer do not depend on historical walls. So many of the very best have bowed upon this ground. It is an honor to join them.

I raise my hands up past my shoulders for the prayer of greeting the masjid. Allahu akbar, I say under my breath. Allah is greater. Beginning my recitation, I notice a profound coolness as I breathe. At the end of each verse I fill my lungs with air which is well water sweet. Read the rest of this entry »

Quba, Breathing (Part 1)


Salim parks on a hill beside Masjid Quba’s gate. “Women’s entrance is up there,” he says. I pin Isra to my hip as I scoot out of the backseat. Our movement stirs up a fine layer of dust from between the seat cushions. The air inside the truck has a powdery mustiness to it, reminiscent of our old blue pick-up with the tall stick shift. It is a smell that I have not encountered in thirty years, and now how strange it seems, continents apart, to find it perfectly preserved.

Down the sidewalk and around the corner we follow Abdur-Rahman. Salim stays with the truck, excusing himself from the expedition in the interest of finding a sandwich. I am struck by his restraint. Only someone from one of the holy cities could pass by the opportunity to pray at Quba so casually. Pilgrims by contrast are greedy. We live by a checklist of blessings which we intend to attain.

As we walk, I think of all the ways that Medina is different from Dubai. Here the night wind is hot and dry, while the evenings are soupy at home. If the streets of each city are its face, then Medina’s brow is lined with age while Dubai is a schoolboy scrubbed clean. Medina tolerates millions of pilgrims, graciously turning a blind eye to their proclivities. Dubai’s patience is more limited. On the subway, bored young Emiratis in army fatigues stand ominously at the ticket machines. Under their watch, no one chews gum, puts their feet up on seats, litters or lingers too long. Dubai is ordered, refined.

Medina, by contrast, is wild. It is a city of heady smells; each of our destinations this evening has carried its own particular scent. The Prophet’s mosque bears the perfume of snowy marble: immaculate, sun-streaked. In the shade of Jabal Uhud, the air smacked of clinkers: of hemoglobin and ash, of soft coal burning. The sidewalk outside Masjid Quba overflows with women selling heaped dried goods. Mint and combs, woven rugs, bricks of brown dried spice: the night wind steeps from these a sultry, airborne tea.

“This is Saudi as I remember it,” Abdur-Rahman says as we pass the sisters by. There is a note of wonder in his voice, as if he has only now remembered something which long forgotten. That is the difference between us: Abdur-Rahman has a point of reference, a legacy of memories against which he can compare. For me, every footstep is new.

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Uhud, 3


A path of flattened gravel loops along Ainain’s side. The pebbles sigh and grind beneath my sandal’s tread; the sound reminds me of coral, of obsidian, of something vomited onto land from the belly of the earth. Their groans are their athkar, I tell myself, their remembrance of divinity. You could do well to follow their example. Subhan Allah, my heart repeats. Subhan Allah Ta’ala. Pilgrims in groups of two or three start up the path behind me.

A crowd of Saudi teenage boys forms on top of the mountain. They stand silhouetted against the sky, talking and laughing, with a casualness I find bittersweet. Do you know, dear brothers, I want to ask, the scope of your blessings? Are you so accustomed to our history that you can stand here, looking over Madinah, and no longer feel afraid?

I find a place at the Ainain’s furthest edge, and gaze out over the graves. Perhaps, whispers part of me, the lessons of the battle are not as dark as you think. Perhaps the boys are right to be happy, to enjoy one another’s company. Nothing happens without the permission of Allah; under no circumstances could the martyrs have lived another day.

The peaks of Mount Uhud are haphazardly cut, like paper torn by a baby. My eyes can distinguish the boundary between stone and sky, but nothing else. Someplace between the graves and the sky, the Prophet fled into a cave. Someplace the remnants of the army hid, hugging the rocks for safety.

The air up here is free of flies, even given our proximity to the graveyard’s market stalls. I stir pebbles with my sandal’s toe, and listen to fragments of Arabic carried along by the breeze. Arrows, Muslims, Mushrikeen; in clusters the pilgrims stand with their guides, pointing sadly, explaining. There is a stillness to Uhud’s lonely plain which not even the laughter of teens can break. Hamza’s stone is fading, as shadow becomes indistinguishable from night. I can no longer determine the boundaries of the martyrs’ graves.

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Uhud, 1


He was at times a raucous man, given to wrestling and quick to speak. He looms larger than life in our stories today: Hamza, beating sense into Abu Jahl; Hamza, the first Muslim who dared to pray in the Kaaba’s shade. Hamza, who even mortally stabbed did not give up the fight. The small rough stones of Uhud sigh under our weight. Remnants of sunlight ebb from the sky, leaving clouds increasingly white.  It is maghrib time on the outskirts of Madinah, and everyone hurries to pray.

The martyrs are buried three to a grave, in a square plot on the battleground. A handful of headstones, rough reddish things lacking inscription, mark the place where Hamza lies with two of his companions. The remainder of the seventy rest behind them. The air is bruised with waiting. History can be either sterile or loud, either dry or wet. In the shade of Jebel Uhud, arrows sing, injuries drip. From up the mountain, at any moment, one may hear Omar’s scream. Spears fly, javelins sing, the Prophet’s teeth are broken.

The pilgrims climb down from the mountain where the archers once stood, and pick their way through the rocks to the masjid. A handful of others slowly recoil from the viewing grate surrounding the graves. They ask Allah, with wide sad eyes, to improve the martyrs’ fate. This battleground, the air testifies, is different from the rest. At others, we recall victory. Khyber’s patience, Badr’s courage. The unity between Ansar and Immigrant surrounding the Battle of the Trench. But sunburnt Uhud, overlooking the city, through air perfumed by crumbling mint, is a memory of disobediance. Uhud is a memory of loss.

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