For the past week or so, Rob and I have been hanging out a lot in Sayyida Zeinab, the Iraqi area of Damascus. The following are my notes and pictures (not his, which are a lot nicer) from several days of wandering around and talking to people.
Sajad was about fifteen or sixteen, dressed in a dark jalabiyya and with an impeccably neat side parting. He peered around the door and invited us in to the office of Sayyida Zeinab mosque. He spoke no English and we spoke in Arabic. He had left Iraq seven years ago, just before the outbreak of war, and had been living in Damascus ever since. One day he hoped to return to Iraq. ‘Huwa baladi’, he said, it is my homeland. We asked to take his picture and he grew wary. Is it for a newspaper, he asked. We said no. In the picture we took he is unsmiling, faintly suspicious. An older cleric came over to see what we were doing and we decided to leave.
Sayyida Zeinab is a beautiful Iranian-style mosque in the Iraqi quarter of Damascus. Tiled in blue and with the large iwans and tall columns of the mosques of Isfahan or Shiraz, it is recognisably in the Persian style. Talking to an Iraqi we met later, we found out that a lot of the restoration and extension of the mosque had in fact been funded by Iranian money. It is particularly sacred to Shia Muslims as the burial place of Sayyida Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, who died of shock and grief when the head of her brother Hussein, who was killed at the battle of Kerbala, was brought to Damascus. Every day, crowds of pilgrims from Iran and the Shia community of Iraq come to Sayyida Zeinab to visit her tomb.
I dressed in a burqa from the kiosk at the front and covered my head with a tight black hijab; with sunglasses on I could pass for Syrian. I went into the central shrine, where Sayyida Zeinab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), is buried. The walls were covered in reflective glass, the shrine itself piled high with flowers and covered in drapes. It was absolutely full of black clad women, sitting on the floor holding prayer books or surging towards the shrine itself. Several tiny old women elbowed me out of the way to get ahead. Many were crying, rocking back and forth where they sat. Each woman touched the door frame as she entered and pressed her fingers briefly to her lips. I had to leave and go back again for a second attempt; I couldn’t cope with the mass of bodies, with the emotion, with the feeling that I shouldn’t be there. Later, I met with Rob in the central courtyard of the mosque. The men’s section was not like that at all, he said. Very calm, very collected. Everyone just quietly praying.
Through a doorway we reached the Islamic Information Centre, hung with Hizbullah flags and featuring large pictures of the Assad-Nasrallah-Ahmedinejad triumvirate. A slim, turbaned Iranian man explained in English that he was there to offer religious guidance to visitors to the mosque. He was noticeably uncomfortable talking to me, and Rob asked most of the questions. What kind of guidance? Do you give advice, or do you deal with theological issues? Both, he said. Any question on Islam, we are here to answer them. There were three representatives, one for each language: Arabic, English, and Farsi. I walked over to where a man dressed in jeans and a tshirt was reading the Qu’ran at a desk, two Hizbullah flags at its corners. He spoke no English but from conversation in Arabic I found out he was a Syrian Hizbullah employee who was working for the Resistance Support Network. Hizbullah is famous for paying out money to the families of ‘resistance martyrs’, including suicide bombers. The Resistance Support Network helps with this, he told me. They collect donations from the faithful across the Middle East to fund their work. I asked him if many Syrians were involved with Hizbullah and he paused for a moment. Yes, there are some, he eventually replied. There is much speculation over the links between Hizbullah, Syria, and the Iranian regime. Walking around the Islamic Information Centre and seeing Hizbullah workers sharing tea and cigarettes with Iranian religious workers, the sympathies and parallels seemed obvious. Posters showing resistance martyrs were everywhere. One showed a cartoon of a boy holding a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini, pointing it towards a crouching, sickly Uncle Sam figure with a Star of David on his chest.
An Iraqi man who had been living in Sweden told us the story of Sayyida Zeinab. Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, was killed at the battle of Kerbala; he and his brother Hassan are revered in Shi’ism as martyrs. His head was brought to Syria from Iraq. His daughter saw it and died of grief and shock; then Sayyida Zeinab, his sister, saw it and died as well. The place where she died is now Sayyida Zeinab mosque and a magnet for Shia pilgrims. We met a man from Bahrain and asked him to take a picture of us. Rob was born in Bahrain and brought out his driving licence to prove it. The man was delighted. ‘You are an Arab, like me,’ he said. He was dressed in the flowing white robes of the Gulf, a black band around his white headdress. Walking back through the outer courtyard of the mosque, we came across a group clustered around one woman who stood holding a prayer book, chanting and singing. The women seated around her beat their chests and answered her in call and response. Some rocked back and forth, some were crying. One was smoking a cigarette as she sang. I slid into the crowd next to a woman who was muttering ‘Yaa ‘Ali, yaa ‘Ali’ to herself; holding Rob’s microphone at my side, I began recording the chanting. The only word I could make out with any regularity was ’tis3ah’, nine.
A tamarind juice seller in his tourist-friendly waistcoat and Ottoman cummerbund was standing outside the mosque. I bought some and stood drinking it beside a group of chador-wearing women. One of them smiled at me and I ventured a hopeful ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’. They too were Iraqi, from a town I had not heard of that began with N but was not Najaf. I was beginning to get very hot inside my borrowed polyester chador, which I had to keep adjusting to keep it from slipping off my shoulder. I drank my tamarind juice and tried to ignore the sweat plastering my shirt to my body. They were here on a ten day pilgrimage tour of Syria, then like hundreds of others each day would return on the bus and jeep routes down to the Abu Kamal crossing and into Iraq. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, they told me.
The road from Iraq leads north west from Baghdad to the Abu Kamal crossing with Syria, from where it veers northwards to Damascus. We spoke to bus drivers and got a different story from every one. There are problems on the road; there are no problems on the road. There are problems on the Iraqi side but not on the Syrian side. There are no problems for Iraqis but there will be for you. A group of men sitting in an air conditioned office invited us in for breakfast. Sitting around a low table, eating bread and labneh, we talked about the journey. They offered Jeep or GMC hire, or the cheaper option of buses, either VIP or normal. Payment was in US dollars and they offered transport to all major Iraqi cities – Baghdad, Basra, Kerbala, Najaf, and so on. They seemed entirely unsurprised that we wanted to go. A bulky man with a booming voice walked in and made a great show of greeting us. He was a border official at Abu Kamal; we asked about visas and he suggested we go to the British Embassy. A cookery show was playing on the TV behind us. Reluctant to leave the air conditioning, we sat and talked for a bit longer. The journey to the border was safe, he said, but beyond that, to Baghdad, there were problems. Were we journalists? Tourists? There should be no problem with a visa. Try the embassy. Maybe British, maybe Iraqi, maybe both. Another bus driver was less circumspect. There was no danger for Iraqis, he explained, but it would be dangerous for us if they saw us. God willing things will change, he said. Laazim change, they must change.
The next time we went back to Sayyida Zeinab was in the evening. The mosque was a lot fuller; there was an entire are cordoned off for women. I took the microphone, said goodbye to Rob, and went in. Almost the entire floor was taken up by groups of women, talking, praying, sitting in silence. There was more chanting, this time from a group of South Asian looking women in flowered saris. If they were singing in Arabic, I couldn’t make any of it out. An Iranian man asked me if I was Muslim. I said no. Ahlan wa sahlan. Are you Sunni or Shia? Neither. Ahlan wa sahlan. You have not made the choice yet. May Allah give you a good heart. The Resistance Support Network employee recognised me. Back again? I had been reading Amal Saad Ghorayeb’s book on Hizbullah and began talking to him about the history of the movement. My Arabic wasn’t quite up to it but I could tell I was getting a potted version similar to the one at Mlita. Are Hizbullah still a resistance movement now they are in government, I asked. He looked a little annoyed. Yes, of course. We must still resist the Zionists. But government is important too. Democracy is necessary. Rob spoke to his English-speaking colleague. They were both volunteers who worked two or three hours a month for the Resistance Support Network, and had been doing so for about two years. He considered Syria and Lebanon the same country, he said, gesturing with his hands to show how Syria encircled her smaller neighbour. I was reminded of Saad Ghorayeb’s quotation from Hizbullah thinking: that Lebanon is a ‘French-created box’. Rob was now asking about Hizbullah entry requirements. A good knowledge of Arabic, came the reply.
Walking back to get the microbus, a group of men called us over for tea and shisha. They were Kurds living in Scandinavia, on holiday in Syria. They were not impressed with my Iran travel plans. One of them asked to see my passport to prove I was British. He then gave me a lecture about the necessity of keeping your passport safe. In Souq Hamidiyya there’s a big market in foreign passports. I began to get a bit nervous and shifted my bag between my legs. Two of the men had decided to get hair transplants while here on holiday – the procedure was twice the price in Denmark. The results were faintly nauseating; a thin trickle of blood had run down the side of one’s head, disappearing behind his ear. One man asked us how much we were paying for our houses in Bab Touma. His house in Sayyida Zeinab was significantly more expensive. Since the Iraq war, property prices in the area have shot up with the influx of Iraqi refugees. We met some more Iraqis further up the road. A man from Basra asked us what we thought of the British soldiers there. He talked about 1920, about the British creation of Iraq. We didn’t know what to say. You should visit, he said. No, his friend from Baghdad said, you should visit Baghdad. Ajmal, ajmal (more beautiful). They laughed, and the tension relaxed slightly.
Our third time in Sayyida Zeinab. We explored the area a bit more, through the souq and down dusty, unpaved streets with rubbish piled on either side. SZ is, in its way, as tourist-oriented as the Old City; the difference is in the demographic. The pilgrim trade is big business here and, just as Straight Street is lined with ‘quaint’ shops selling Arab handicrafts, so are the streets of Sayyida Zeinab full of shops selling a bewildering array of religious kitsch. Lovingly drawn pencil portrait of Nasrallah? Jewelled model of the Sayyida Zeinab shrine? All this and more prayer mats, religious inscriptions and miniature Qu’rans than you could shake a minbar at. The area was the busiest we had yet seen it; it seemed a big day for Gulf pilgrims, with a lot of buses from Saudi and Bahrain; the tourists crowding the streets were dressed khaliiji-conservative, the men in jalabiyyas and the women entirely covered. They thronged around the mosque, buying tamarind juice and souvenirs. On a tiny TV set in an electronics shop, the picture fuzzy and the colours a little off, I saw a child belly dancer gyrating gauchely in a green sequinned costume.
The cemetery was not far from the mosque, a small plot of land set between tower blocks on one side and the bus station on the other. Each grave listed the twelve imams of Shi’ism on the front and the name of the dead on the back. A gravedigger trundled past with a wheelbarrow. Many of the graves were draped with black and green pennants. One headstone was a huge map of Iraq. Back in the bus station, one of the drivers recognised me. Elizabeth! Kayfik? I told him we would be back, in three or four days, to get on the bus to the Iraqi border.