By Charles Gronning*
Damascus: To hear that this is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth may be a fact so dry it persuades you, precious reader, to turn your attention elsewhere. And why not, I’m sure that this lovely new site has lots of fresh content vying for your sweet, sweet attention.
Every day, we forget we live in history as it is being disseminated. Every story, from the whims of princes and presidents to the hardest trials of those living on the breadline, will directly decide the world that our children shall live in. Here in Damascus, it is not difficult to feel the dust of history under your fingernails.
My morning commute takes me past the Sayyida Rukaiya shrine in the old city, where the great grand-daughter of the Prophet (PBUH**) is believed to have died in 680CE during the rule of, depending on your interpretation, the rightful caliph or the vicious tyrant Yazid.
According to the nice Iranian men at the shiny new mosque, the young girl died of shock when the severed, rotting head of her father, Hussain, was paraded in front of her upon the army’s return from the Battle of Karbala. Visiting the shrine, the outsider is often met with the sight of ritual Shi’i mourning: tears and wails from the pilgrims, black-clad women and anguished men beating their chests.
This spiritual realm is a world away from my banal priorities: where to charge my laptop, trying to avoid failing my Arabic tests (pretty unsuccessful so far), running out of cigarettes, and so on. Rarely have I felt quite so conscious of my – completely deserved – status as a representative of the corrupt, decadent West.
The battle that took place on the plains of Mesopotamia all that time ago was the struggle for political power at the head of the new Islamic government which had shifted its center of power from Mecca and Medina to Damascus.
For hundreds of years, the new capital of the Islamic empire would become the global hub of education, science, art and power, before merciless, pointless Crusader invasion and factional infighting brought the Ottoman Turks to the seat of power. It would become one of the capitals of what would become known as the dominant Sunni branch of Islam.
Meanwhile, the followers of Ali and Hussain, motivated in their eyes by the cruel injustice that martyred the rightful heir to the leadership of the religion, spread their tale among many poor communities of the Islamic world, eventually taking root in modern day Iran and elsewhere.
It is not for me to pass judgment on the accuracy of this Shi’i version of the story. All on its own, the story developed a moral weight that conquering armies and the caliphs with forgotten names could not wash away.
It is not hard to picture the image created by the story, which for centuries has reinforced the Shi’i belief in just martyrdom at the hands of evil. A scene that plays the in minds of children and pilgrims alike. The historian’s dry penchant for accuracy becomes irrelevant when it is brought up against the requisites of fervor.
The sun glistens off the blooded spears of the returning army. The horses and the camels kick up a dust that covers all, whilst the hot sun beats down on their backs. The returning tyrant is drunk with victory, with the head of the Prophet’s grandson in his hand, stuck on a pole, unburied, unrespected.
Meanwhile, innocent young Rukaiya is imprisoned in the camp of the tyrant, tortured by separation from her family, alone and frightened in a strange environment, tears rolling down her cheeks. She has no understanding of what is going on. Her final indignity is the sight of her dead father’s face, bloody and dirty, tongue out, stinking from the decomposition. Her heart stops, immediately, and she falls to the floor.
A few weeks ago, watching Al-Arabiya on a Friday afternoon, I saw a modern equivalent of this tale. A grainy video of a dusty street framed with farmland, reportedly from Dera’a. People flee in all directions as shots ring out. The sky, then the pavement, moves fast in and out of view.
Suddenly the camera stops shaking, and an old man in cheap peasant robes enters the picture, two metres away from the mobile-turned-camera, walking slowly past. Cradled in his arms is a young boy of no more than ten.
The old man walks carefully, deliberately, in shock, despite the chaos around him. The boy’s head is pixellated, but the gushing red is clear to see, covering him and the outstretched arms of the old man. The camera suddenly becomes steady, as if out of respect for the dead.
The Alawi sect that holds real power here claims allegiance to Shi’i Islam. It has done so at least since Hafez Al-Assad decided that the Shi’i community in Lebanon and the post-revolutionary Iranian regime would be worthwhile allies against the Israelis, who were getting uncomfortably close to Damascus by occupying Beirut in the 80s.
The Iranians have now been accused of aiding the regime here in their crackdown on unarmed protesters. The playbook of the post-election violence in Iran in 2009 is being repeated here: keep the protests out of city centers at any cost, stop journalists from reporting accurately, whilst hiring thugs to beat ordinary people while the secret police lock dissidents up.
So, to conclude, a regime that considers itself to be based on a religion that centers on an alleged fundamental injustice at the heart of Islam, is helping to spread violence against innocents, probably in the interests of international realpolitik. On my doorstep. To bastardize a phrase from an entirely separate field of human endeavour: “History, bloody hell!”.
*The identity of the writer has been protected for security reasons.
** Muslims repeat the phrase “peace be upon him” after mentioning the Prophet Muhammad’s name. It is abbreviated to (pbuh) in the text.
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