Sunday, January 15, 2012

Other people's religions

On the next to last night, the penultimate night, we went to a Sufi shrine to hear the ecstatic singing that takes place every Thursday. The shrine is at the hidden center of a kind of labyrinth: long, narrow, winding corridor-streets (how many? at least two), lined on either side with exuberant, crowded commerce and people, people, people. I was there with Lesleigh and the two Davids, our task being (1) to meet the group inside the shrine, and (2) stay together. A trail of breadcrumbs? You wouldn't have seen them. So we traveled like this: one David, Lesleigh in a scarf, me in a scarf, the other David. Never have I felt so in need of a body guard, nor so happy to have such attentive and gracious ones.

And then the first corridor came to an end, with the usual set of merchants guarding shoes. Behind them was more dark corridor, but this time something a little menacing. We found out later that it was an exorcism. Go in? Not go in? Timid me, I thought I'd seen enough. The rest of the crew went along--as I said, they are really gracious--and we went to find a second entrance.

Second entrance: another corridor, more people, maybe slightly less impossibly narrow, more beggars. The opening to the shrine was more inviting. We left our shoes, we went in, and there on the edge of the dark mass of people listening to the singing was our group. The singing was in the center of the shrine (men sitting cross-legged), surrounded by concentric circles of listeners. The exorcism was to our backs, behind a screen.

At this point opinions differ. Most everyone, including the scholars of religion, felt comfortable and even welcomed. What I felt was danger--not so much an undertone of menace so much as a lurking awareness of its possibility. This is, after all, an Abrahamic religion, and all Abrahamic religions (I adhere to one myself) have their exclusionary undersides, which don't always remain undersides, and had anything like that happened here, in this atmosphere of ecstatic singing, there would be no way out. Of course nothing of the sort happened. Instead, the singing led into the call to prayer. Visitors started moving toward the corridors. I was relieved, but I also thought: stampede? Again, nothing of the sort. We paid for the return of our shoes and retraced our steps.


  1. Thanks for this post.

    I sort of understand the feelings you had. I once entered the *Blue Mosque in Istanbul (shoes off, head down) and felt – not just out of place, but strangely out of place. Is that where the uncertainty came from? Or was that just me?


  2. Thanks for your comment. For me, the uncertainty was compounded by the fact that I had no exit. I've been at lots of different religious ceremonies, but if I had been extremely uncomfortable (never happened) I could have left. Here, because of the darkness and confusion and general complications of being female, I could not have left on my own.