Iraqis in Saida Zeinab, Syria

Friday, Oct 22, 2010

Being in Saida Zeinab is not so easy. People on the street are nearly all Iraqi. The older people look tired, exhausted, worn out. Inside the Saida Zeinab mosque these people are taking refuge, crying out loud for the pain of the Shia history and for the pain of the present moment... Some of the Iraqi men look like gnomes who have been suffering for years in some underground prison. I don't see hope in their eyes. I see shells of human bodies with near life-less energies.

Many of the elderly women scuttle about in their black abayas looking nervously from side-to-side as they navigate the streets. Like owls forced out into the daytime sun, they don't look like they belong here. They are relics of some other time and place. War is hard on men. But war is even harder on women. They have lost the promise of modern times and deprived of the elegance of the past: now caught in a nowhere land.

We walk past men with withered legs using their arms to peddle themselves in makeshift carts and wheelchairs.

We are confused and tormented by little boys and girls begging for coins. Giving them something does not satisfy them. They simply become angry that they were not given more.

Mothers display malformed children in baby carriages and collect the coins of passers-by.

Wealthier Shia pilgims arrive in buses from Iran and move in little crowds to cry and pray in the mosque. They don't speak Arabic, they speak a totally un-related language: Farsi.

But that's not all: a re-birth is happening! The teenagers and young adults have some energy! I don't think many of them ever planned to stay forever in Saida Zeinab. But fresh fruit-juice shops, internet shops, a few upscale hotels for the pilgims, restaurants are all open and busy behind the flurry of cars and carts and street vendors. Youth will have its way.

Zahra, a young Iraqi girl of 20 who has befriended us, takes us to the best Iraqi restaurant in the market. One of her uncles runs it. We choose between the dishes made of sheep brains and testicles and opt for a bit of sheep meat with a tomato sauce: excellent taste! She is leaving tomorrow to go back to Iraq to see her father. She is from Babylon, or rather the modern town located there.

What happened from singing with a group of Iraqi men the night before last you are wondering? The same group told a few of their friends and came back for more the next night. After following our lead for a few songs, one of the men launched into a vocal improvisation with praise to Allah and followed that with an adan, or call to prayer. I responded by leading "T'ala al batru alaina..." a song which could be called the Islamic national anthem and concluding it with an Egyptian version of the call to prayer.

After this there was a pregnant pause filled with the unspoken question about my and Kristina's presence in Saida Zeinab: "are we Muslim? What is the meaning of our being here now singing these things?"

I explained in Arabic that the version of the call to prayer which I had just sung came from an Um Kolsoum composition by Riyad el Soumbati called "al soulasia al muqadasa"...

This was my way of bringing the conversation back to music and away from religion... which of course everyone found somewhat confusing as in Arabic there is a pretty solid line between "music" and "prayer."

But the truth of the matter is that LOVE IS MY RELIGION. And any music which feels to me to express that Love is my prayer. So I am crossing lines that are not so easy to cross from the insides of places like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Native Americanism, Hinduism or any of the other places where traditions prevail. But everyone knows about love... There is an old Iraqi song called: "Love is My Religion".

Did I mention that I saw a cloud high in the blue sky over Syria today which I am sure I saw high in the sky over Colorado last summer?! I guess the new border control checkpoints aren't fully funcional yet! That cloud made it through!

What do musicians like Cameron and Kristina have in common with clouds, birds, gypsies and bedouin? We sometimes cross borders with no papers needed! We have pitched our tent in no-man's-land: the last remaining strips of freedom between the borders! Yes, even from eastern Jordan we have seen the Bedouin with their tents pitched and with their surrounding herds of sheep: right in the no-man's-land between the border check-points where the guns are aimed from Israel and where licensed citizens with their passports dare not trespass! And Cameron and Kristina entered Iraq in 2003 with no official permissions: just a few Iraqi songs!

And what else do we seem to share? money in the bank!


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