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December 2006

Chance meetings in the City of the Prophet

Sahar Ullah
I used to prefer sitting with the elderly pilgrims when I would sit in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina for hours. I'm not sure why, but part of it is that I felt they had a special mercy for me as a young pilgrim. I could see prayers in their eyes without understanding the words they said; part of it is that they would not engage me in conversation and were usually in intense supplication of God with pleas informed by all the years of their lived experiences.

One day, after having shawarma sandwiches in the Prophet's Illuminated City, I returned with Mom, my cousin, and little sister to the Prophet's mosque, (sallallahu 'alayhi wa alihi sallam). We found a place by a pillar underneath one of the domes that opens every now and then, exposing the sky and letting the birds and winter breeze in and out. My cousin and sister sat on my mother's left side and I sat on her right between her and an elderly Turkish woman who was by herself reading a book of prayers. (I assumed she was Turkish by the way she was dressed.) She gestured for me to sit there indicating there was room for me.

After noticing my interaction with my mother—we were jokingly poking each other— she asked me (or so I think she did) if that was my mother. I said yes. I asked her with the little Arabic I had learned over the years, "Anti min Turkiye?" She said yes. It made me happy that my guess was correct. Then I said, "Istanbul?" She said "Konye." Trying to impress her that I knew something about Konye, I said, "Mevlana Rumi?" Then she began to speak. A lot of Turkish. I thought to myself, “Good work, Sahar. Try impressing her now.”

After that, another elderly woman sat next to her. She informed us she was from Tunisia. Not too long after we returned to our individual prayers, the Tunisian woman began coughing. Mom offered both her and the Turkish woman cough drops. Mom always carried cough drops; she said giving cough drops was one of the best techniques to get people to pray for you sincerely.

We prayed the late afternoon prayer and returned to our individual prayers and recitations. I began reciting some Qur'an when the Turkish woman turned to me and said, "Ya Sin? Ya Sin? " I looked at her and asked, "You want me to read Ya Sin?" I turned to the chapter and recalled a similar moment in Mecca when an Iranian woman asked me to recite the same chapter for her. Not sure if she wanted me to show her the chapter or read it, I pointed to it and she nodded her head and said, "Iqra'i, Iqra'i." At that moment, I was not sure if the Turkish word for "read" was the same as Arabic (I learned later that it is not), but I knew what the word meant in Arabic and began to recite the chapter. When I ended, she seemed very happy, patted me gently, and returned to reading her book of litanies again.

Then, she again stopped a few moments later. She pointed to a verse in the Chapter of Ya Sin and tried to pronounce it indicating to me that I should read it for her. So I read it to her and she nodded her head and repeated the verse.

When the call for the Sunset Prayer began, the Tunisian woman began unwrapping something. They were dates. She was fasting. I noticed the Turkish woman reach for some snacks in her bag and I told mom that the other woman was fasting. Mom quickly took out some cookies for her from her bottomless purse of cough drops and everything else useful. Everyone wanted to get the blessings of giving food to a fasting woman.

After the final prayer of the night, we all stood up to leave. The Turkish woman and Tunisian woman turned to me and my mother and embraced us warmly. They then said a few words in Arabic and Turkish. I could not understand all the words that passed among us, but I understood both of them when they looked up, and then looked at us saying with strong emotion, "Janna; janna, insha-Allah” (Paradise; paradise, God-willing.)

From their faces, I knew they were saying, "We do not have a very long time here" and I knew they were saying "We may never see each other in this world again" but we are all here as pilgrims, we were together in our primordial states, so we hope we will be together again.

My eyes began to tear and my heart ached. I felt as if I was leaving dear friends...although we sat with each other for a few hours, barely speaking.

It then occurred to me how special our meetings with strangers were in that city of pilgrims and the small kindnesses they offered. They had no other reason to befriend a stranger for a few moments other than for the love of God and the love of another guest of the Prophet, in his city, in his house.

May we be in each other's company in Paradise.