It was difficult to find parking and my friend and I were worried that we would be late for the taraweeh prayers. As we drove past the simple community centre housing the mosque we noted people prostrating in lines outside. "Damn," my friend muttered as he manouevred the car between the parked cars, "we're going to have to pray outside. We should have just gone to the mosque that was near us."
Taking leave from M I went in to wash before joining the prayers. Picking my way carefully through the throngs of people crammed into the small centre, I made my way to where the basins were, avoiding the odd person prostrating here and there. That evening I prayed the Isha whilst standing, it was that crowded, although I was fortunate to find a gap in the lines for me to continue the taraweeh with everybody else. Just over a year ago, I had wandered into this particular mosque, hurt, lost and confused. It was then that I met the wonderful Abu Salem, an experience that I wrote a post about. I was not sure if I would find him and I had already lost M in the throng. In fact part of the reason why we were there was because I had spoken so much about this old man and M wanted to meet him. I liked that about him, he was always looking for wisdom, always seeking Allah. As I began to make my way outside I spotted Abu Salem talking to a young man. He had a few days worth of stubble on his chin, probably because it was Ramadan, and was looking a little bit older than I remembered him - but there was no mistaking those remarkable eyes. They always sparkled with intelligence and life.
I gently touched his shoulder, "How are you Uncle?"
"My boy! How are you? Ramadan kareem!", he remembered me even though I had not seen him in over a year. The other young man shifted over as I squatted beside them. I did not want to intrude, but I also made it clear I was there to stay and not just passing by.
"You see my son," he was talking to the young man, touching his hand or shoulder to emphasise the point sometimes, "if people are walking past a department store and see a SALE sign, they'd walk in even if they didn't need anything. Right? Well this is Ramadan, do you understand how much forgiveness and blessing there is for everyone in this month? This isn't just at a discount, Allah has opened his bounty to us for all to take. What fool would miss out on such a bounty?" The young man nodded his head, murmuring an approval. Yet as I sat quietly there, I marvelled at how I was learning something from this human being and I had only sat down seconds ago. What well sprung from deep within this man, and with such knowledge. The young man got up and bade us farewell and Abu Salem was getting up. "Come" he waved at me to join a group of people sitting near the minbar. The mosque was run by Sheikh Abdul Hadi, a stern looking man with a strong gaze. To my surprise I would later be told that this man is a Sufi and had nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, as the worry usually is when you meet religious Syrians abroad. He was also remarkably gentle.
We sat down as the group exchanged banter and laughter, they all knew each other and the Sheikh was just finishing telling a young Egyptian man a joke about Mubarak. Something about the intelligence services being able to know everything about a man before he even opened his mouth. The punchline was when the poor man told them that his children went to bed hungry the night before, and if they knew that as well? We all laughed, noting the sad truth in the story.
By then M had found me, and he had come and squatted right between Abu Salem and myself. One side of M's shirt collar was pointing upwards, he buttoned his shirt all the way up like Iranians did, and I pushed it down for him. This was a moment I had been waiting for, two men with enormous knowledge and piety, meeting one another for the first time. "Maysaloon had told me so much about you Haji, I've been meaning to talk to you for a very long time" This seemed to make the old man slightly embarrassed, and he smiled humbly and mumbled how it was all from Allah's grace. The others continued their conversations in the background whilst we talked on.
That night the conversation between M and the old man was long and varied, and we covered more topics than I have time to write about today. One story in particular caught my imagination. M had been having family problems for some time, particularly with his twenty year old son, and watching the old man patiently advising M was simply inspiring. "You know, children will always do what you forbid them to do. Eventually curiosity gets the better of them, and us. It's human you see, being inquisitive. And we should encourage it. Yes! Encourage it!" He put his hand on M's when he sensed his disapproval.
"I remember I once went to my father and told him I wanted to go to the cinema, back then that wasn't a respectable thing to do you see." He leaned against the pillar and stretched his leg. "I remember my father say sure, I'll come with you. I still remember the film, it was called 'The Prisoner of Zenda' and we talked about it a lot when we came out. The next day he bought me the book, which I read voraciously. A week later he asked me which I thought was better, and I told him the book was incredibly more colourful and with greater depth. You see, my father didn't try to forbid me from going - he knew I would have gone anyway. Instead he joined me and I got so used to him coming with me to the cinema that it became our thing. I could never go to the cinema without him eventually. The other thing he did was he helped encourage me to read. I'll never forget that..."
I did less talking and more listening whilst M and Abu Salem spoke. Listening to him tell us about the Prisoner of Zenda and his days with his father felt like he was sharing a precious and secret moment from a time that had long gone. A window to the past had been opened in my mind, and I peered in like a hungry man in front of a restaurant. I only just remembered this particular story though it happened a few days ago. I don't know why. If that old man didn't tell us this story, it might forever have remained a secret, hidden away - and that would have been a terrible shame. I guess some treasures must be known...