The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool
The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool
In the company of a witty, irreverent Canadian poet with a gift for listening, The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool allows us to eavesdrop on the lives of pre-civil-war Syrians – their beliefs, obsessions and everyday concerns. Concentrating on 'what is poetically rather than demonstrably true', Kociejowski ignores the politics of the Middle East and the usual obsession with earlier travellers. Instead he describes his friendships, nurtured over a period of ten years, with a cast of extraordinary characters: a faith-healing stigmatic, a desert father, an embittered Palestinian refugee and the philosopher and fool of the book's title.
Here are the dreams, fears and aspirations of the old Levant and its fascinating flux of faiths. Today, The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool bears precious testimony to the tolerant coexistence which characterised Syria until so recently.
The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool
Format: 312pp demi pb
Place: Syria/Middle East
Marius Kociejowski is justly admired by lovers of contemporary poetry for his mastery of the craft. He has published three collections of poetry in Britain and has also published essays on various topics, mainly on people, travel and literature. Marius Kociejowski is Ontario-born but has long been resident in London, England.
Extract from Chapter One
AS WE PASSED THROUGH the Syrian Gates my thoughts were not where I’d trained them to be, on Strabo or Alexander, but on a turtle I had encountered a few days earlier on the road
from Urgüp to Mustafapasha. I had been walking the five miles that separate those two places with a young American woman, Grace, who was all that her name implies, a ghost of the Old South in her voice. Although oddly out of place, she had come to Cappadocia in search of the late Byzantine. We were walking through one of the world’s stranger landscapes, the tufa formations like dream cities in the distance, when we came upon a turtle standing at one side of the road, debating whether or not to cross over to the other side. I had a grim vision of asphalt spattered with turtle, so I picked up the creature, intending to move it a few feet over onto the grassy verge. At that moment a red car sped around the corner, from the direction of Mustafapasha, and screeched to a stop. The driver jumped out, opened the boot of his car, came up to me, muttered a single word in Turkish, plucked the turtle out of my hands, dropped it into the boot – clunk – and, as if this were his sole mission in life, jumped back into his car, made a U-turn and drove back from whence he came. All this happened so quickly that any protest I might have made was only just beginning to take shape.
‘Well, I reckon there goes somebody’s supper,’ said Grace.
Was this mockery in her voice? The fact is, by drawing attention to the turtle’s existence I had become the agent of its destruction.
A couple of days later, I met Grace again, on a guided tour of Cappadocia. Our guide, Mustafa, whose enthusiasm for his subject was genuine, was pointing out some of the more extraordinary rock formations near Göreme, inviting us to draw visual comparisons.
‘You see Napoleon over there,’ he said, the joke dying on his lips, probably for the thousandth time.
‘And there you’ll see one resembling a – ’ ‘Turtle!’ Grace and I simultaneously exclaimed. What we saw, perched upon one of the pillars of stone, like some
terrible ghost summoned to remind us of old crimes, did indeed resemble the hapless chelonian of a couple of days before. (I have to confess that although, by and large, I’ve shed the skin of a North American childhood I am still prone to call a tortoise a turtle.) Mustafa smiled uneasily at the tears of laughter in our eyes.
‘Do Turks eat turtles?’ I asked him. A look of disgust formed around his mouth. ‘No, the French do.’ I told him the story of my turtle. ‘Maybe he was rescuing it from you,’ he answered. My spirits lifted to an imagined newspaper banner:
MAN SAVES TURTLE
Our bus climbed slowly through the twisting pass of the Amanus Mountains, the Syrian Gates, where Alexander the Great came, fresh from victory, in 333bc, over Darius on the plain of Issos. The Crusaders came this way too. Along the roadside were small trees which the hari kaya, the winter mistral that blows through these parts, whipped into grotesque shapes. The fertile plain of Amuk was in the distance and beyond that, Antakya, the modern Turkish name for Antioch.
Antioch, ah, the very sound that word made.
I had read about ‘the fair crown of the Orient’ (Orientis apicem pulcrum) whose streets were positioned at such an angle that they would catch the breeze blowing off the Orontes. Antioch was, after Byzantium, the most magnificent city in the eastern Roman Empire but, as though such beauty were not sustainable, it was built over two zones of seismic disturbance. The ancients said that when Jupiter in his rage struck the dragon, Typhon, at the foot of Mount Amanus, Typhon, fleeing the god’s thunderbolts, burrowed deep into the ground, his subterranean panic resulting in earthquakes. It was here, in the middle of the first century, beneath the gaze of the goddess Tyche, that Christianity got its name. Antioch has also been described as ‘the eye of the Eastern church’. What fascinated me above all, though, were the third-century figures of Libanius, the last great pagan orator, author of the Antiochikos, the celebrated encomium of his town, and his pupil, John Chrysostom, ‘John of the Golden Mouth’, arguably the greatest Christian orator of his time. If the legend is true, and it sounds too attractive not to believe, when Libanius was on his deathbed his disciples begged that the school he founded be put in the hands of his most brilliant student, and he answered, ‘It ought to have been John had not the Christians stolen him from us.’ Libanius’s melancholic disposition could be put down to his having been struck on the head when young by a bolt of lightning. We know he suffered from migraine. Christianity, which in his own writings he disdains to mention by name, must have struck him like a second bolt. A habitual bather, Libanius recoiled from the unwashed monks in their dark sackcloth, these fools spouting pieties. If they wished to free themselves of earthly passions, he reasoned, why undo the very education that provided them with the means to do so? Was not classical Greek literature mankind’s most precious possession, its study the most effective means of receiving moral training? And was not a rhetorical education the main ingredient of civilisation? My sympathies were with this old heathen whose singed head ached all the more to see the ancient Hellenistic world with its civilised values possessed by ‘the Galilean madness’.
As for Chrysostom, he truly was one of ‘Christ’s athletes’. Like so many ascetics of the day he ate but little, went into the desert to engage in contemplation and wore threadbare clothes. What distinguished him from the Great Unwashed, however, was his magnificent eloquence. When he preached the cathedral filled and it is said his sermons were frequently interrupted with applause. The common people who spoke only Syriac would gather around a deacon who translated from the Greek while Chrysostom spoke. Moreover, Chrysostom knew the hearts of the people he preached to, and with his acute sensitivity to matters of the human soul and his deep knowledge of the Scriptures he would render even the most difficult concepts in terms to which his listeners could immediately relate. If the world were about to break in two, with Antioch perched on its fault line, it would do so to the clamour of great voices. Antioch was already becoming for me a poetic landscape, every bit as potent as Yeats’s Byzantium, a theatre of the imagination where pagan and Christian are locked in perpetual struggle. Historically, Syria is almost unthinkable without Antioch. If Damascus were Syria’s historical centre, Antioch would still be my mythical one.
A young man in a turtleneck sweater, who – how shall I say this? – resembled a turtle, kept glancing over at me. He was reading a news- paper, the front and middle pages of which appeared to be devoted to some woman with a slightly mannish face or perhaps a man with a rather womanish one.
‘Zeki Müren is dead,’ he said with a curious grin on his face.
The previous night Zeki, one of Turkey’s most popular singers, collapsed and died of heart failure, only minutes after being presented, on live television, with the gift of his (or her) first ever microphone.
‘At precisely one minute to nine!’
My neighbour seemed to attach much significance to the time of death.
‘You see, it could have happened at one minute past nine which means people would have said he died at about ten o’clock, rather than nine. A minute in Turkey can be the same as an hour.’
‘Are you telling me Zeki was a transvestite?’ ‘Sorry?’ I pointed to a photograph of Zeki looking most fetching in a one-
piece woman’s bathing costume. Quite clearly, the waves had gone nowhere near her (or his) pompadour.
‘It would appear,’ I said, not wishing to ruffle Ottoman sensibilities, ‘that she was in fact a he.’
The young man pondered this for a moment. ‘Yes, maybe!’ There had been a fresh attack on the Kurds in the east of the country,
news of which occupied only a square inch of space, whereas the death of Zeki, one of Turkey’s national treasures, filled most of the paper.
‘Zeki Müren was born in 1931, in Bursa.’ My neighbour began to translate for me one of the many articles. ‘His grandfather was a muezzin at the mosque there, and it was from him that Zeki learned to sing. The girls used to crowd around him, and, at the age of six he fell in love with Ayten, a girl with green eyes.’
I struggled with this early instance of heterosexual love. ‘ . . . At sixteen, Zeki made his first record – ’ ‘What can you tell me about turtles?’ The young man, his shaven head protruding from the dark shell of
his clothes, seemed not in the least unsettled by my sudden change of direction. I told him about the troublesome business on the road to Mustafapasha.
‘Well, it was quite obviously his turtle.’
After mulling over the issue, however, he returned with a fresh explanation.
‘I read not so long ago, in the newspaper, of an American who believes he has discovered a cure for cancer, which is drinking the blood of turtle.’
TURTLE SAVES MAN
According to Pliny the Elder the flesh of the turtle is an antidote ‘highly salutary for repelling the malpractice of magic and for neutralising poisons’ (Nat. Hist., xxxii, 14) and as such appears in his catalogue of remedies sixty-six times. My heart sank, and before I could prevent my neighbour from reaching the obvious conclusion, he explained, ‘You see, this man who took your turtle might have read the same article.’
As we approached ‘the fair crown of the Orient’ I saw in the distance women in bright colours picking cotton. They had been trucked in, magenta scarves whipping about their faces, from the nearby towns and villages. They were the lucky ones, my companion explained to me. Every morning these women would gather in the marketplace, hoping to be among the few chosen from the many poor willing to break their backs for a pittance.
When I reached modern Antakya my heart sank in the time it takes for a stone to reach the bottom of the Orontes. Although I knew to expect little, I was appalled nevertheless. Antakya was not the sleepy backwater I had imagined – it was ugly, congested, and seemingly without a centre. The ghosts of Chrysostom and Libanius seemed to dissolve in the traffic fumes. I stood on a ‘Roman’ bridge somewhere in the body of which presumably was the original stone. A traveller standing on this same bridge, in 1847, wrote of the wonderful and fearful sight the swollen river made ‘as it tears by, roaring and foaming towards the sea’. And he wrote of being able to see from there distant blue mountains, pastures and green hillocks, poplars and evergreens, handsome buildings on one side and crumbling old ruins, minarets and mosques, on the other. It was difficult now to imagine Mounts Staurus, Orocassius and Silpius as cradle to the third city of the Roman Empire, and that upon their slopes lived monks and hermits, many of them holy fools, who had turned their backs on a civilisation given to seeking pleasure, whether it be at the theatre, at the horse races or in easy sexual encounters at Daphne. ‘The loss of Antioch is as if the sun dropped into a hole and left its rays behind it,’ wrote Freya Stark, ‘for its influence is still visible in spite of all.’ The town has changed still more since Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark first recorded their impressions. The Orontes, which the Turks call the Asi Nehri, is now a slow, green effluence, its concrete banks covered with advertisements. I stared down at a slowly moving plastic bottle.
A white object flashed upon the water. A young man with an oversized head and piercing eyes was walking with a close friend through the gardens alongside the Orontes. They were both wearing the coarse, sleeveless robes – lebiton – which bespoke their withdrawal from the world and its vanities. Their solemn, abstracted movements suggested a monkish attitude. They spoke, heads bowed, in hushed tones. They were on their way to visit a martyr’s shrine when they noticed the floating object which at first they took to be a piece of linen. When they, both of them eager bibliophiles, saw it was an unbound book they took turns in trying to fish it out, joking all the while, wondering who would secure the prize. The friend teased the book to shore.
‘I will have shares in this,’ the other laughed. ‘But first let us see,’ said the winner, ‘what in the world it is.’ The soggy pages were covered with magical formulae. ‘You realise whose book this was?’ The other nodded. They guessed immediately who the previous owner was, a man who earlier had been carried all about the city in bonds and then executed. This man thinking to escape the authorities threw the incriminating object into the Orontes – all in vain, for further evidence (as if further evidence were needed) was brought against him. What both young men knew was that if caught with the manuscript they would suffer the same fate. Their failure to take immediate action reflected a certain grim fascination. The young man with the big head and spidery frame was John Chrysostom; the friend may have been Evagrios, or perhaps Theodore or even Maximus, any one of whom would qualify for the role, for like Chrysostom they too had turned their backs on the excesses of the material world.
Such was the mood in Antioch at that time, when, according to Ammianus, men crept about ‘as if in Cimmerian darkness’. It was the late autumn of ad371; the emperor Flavius Valens was newly arrived in Antioch. The whole city was in a tremble. A bigoted, deeply superstitious Christian, a man not without foes, Valens had heard rumours of divination by which means it could be ascertained when he would die, under what circumstances, and, more vitally, who his successor would be. Ouija boards had been used to produce oracles, which responded in Greek hexameters. Also theurgy involving magical techniques for religious enlightenment was widely practised. Libanius writes of alektromanteia, a form of divination which involved scratching the letters of the alphabet on the ground and laying a grain of wheat on top of each one; fowl would be set loose, and, according to the sequence in which they picked the grain, the enquirer would be provided with answers to his questions. Valens had to contend with an entire culture of magic, both pagan and Christian. Valens ‘carrying death at the tip of his tongue, blew everything down with an untimely hurricane, hastening to overturn utterly the richest houses’. His soldiers combed the city for evidence, particularly books of sorcery and magic. Whole libraries were put to the torch, and even those books which could be read in perfect innocence or which the authorities passed over the Antiochenes themselves burned. An innocuous passage read by ignorant eyes could amount to a death sentence. Anyone caught dabbling in the black arts or even possessing books on the subject was tried and, in most instances, summarily executed. Ironically, the judges would ask ‘conspirators’ whether they had predicted their own fate.
‘Everywhere,’ Ammianus writes, ‘the scene was like a slaughtering of cattle.’ A man had been executed for consulting the horoscope of another Valens who was in fact his own brother; another, Bassianus, who sought by divination to determine the sex of his unborn child, had all his property confiscated. Some unfortunates who made the mistake of passing a tomb at night were suspected of seeking to communicate with the dead and, because raising the ghosts of the dead was a capital offence, shortly after followed them to the grave. A farmer who used amulets and magical charms for summoning good weather and crops was driven into exile. A philosopher called Coeranius wrote to his wife, telling her to ‘crown the door of the house’, a common expression of the time meaning that something of greater importance than usual was to be done; he was executed after savage torture. An old woman was put to death for treating a fever with charms, a technique that she had applied with success to the daughter of the very man who passed sentence on her. A youth was beheaded because he had been spotted in the baths touching the marble and then his breast, while reciting the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet. The vowels with their mystical connection to the seven planets were often used in magical formulae; the youth in question was suffering from a bellyache. Many had been condemned to death before they themselves knew they were under suspicion.
A celebrated case in Scythopolis revealed ‘an endless cable of crimes’. A tripod of laurel wood was displayed in a courtroom as evidence of a séance. A circular metal plate with the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet engraved on its rim was placed beneath it, and suspended by a thread from the apex of the tripod was a ring which, when set in motion, would spell out in hexameter verses responses to the questions asked of it. The séance was conducted in a house purified with Arabic perfumes. The emperor would die on the plains of Mimas, it said. When the participants of the séance asked who would succeed him the pendulum swung to four letters: theta, epsilon, omikron and delta. Although there were many names beginning with ‘THEO’ suspicion fell upon one Theodorus, an imperial secretary of high birth and erudition, who was a popular figure among the people. If the participants in the séance had finished spelling the name, Theodorus might have escaped; ironically, the four letters would have applied equally well to Theodosius who in fact succeeded Valens. Theodorus was so despairing of justice that he attended the trial wearing black robes. One of the witnesses, Hilarius, said that Theodorus was completely ignorant of what had taken place. When examined by the judge, Theodorus, after lying prostrate praying for pardon, dryly remarked that there was no need for an attempt on the throne since fate would bring about the outcome in any case. All the witnesses were strangled, save for one, a young philosopher, Simonides, who stood motionless amid the flames.
All this must have been passing through the minds of Chrysostom and his friend while they stared at the mysterious signs and formulae. A soldier approached, and for the next few minutes paced back and forth between them and the river. Years later, in one of his homilies, Chrysostom would speak of themselves as being ‘congealed with fear’. They could neither toss the book away nor tear it to pieces without attracting notice. ‘God gave us means’, although what these were Chrysostom does not say; perhaps the pages were stuffed in an intimate place. Finally, when the soldier was at a safe distance, they cast the book aside and quickly made their departure. Chrysostom, relating this youthful adventure, one of a number of such cases, pointed to God’s intervention when ‘we have fallen into dangers and calamities’ as being good cause for people to glorify Him.
Antioch was not always the most congenial of places.
That evening, beneath an almost full moon, I walked through what little survives of the old town, the narrow streets with the appearance of stone walls, their continuity broken only by shuttered wooden balconies and closed entrances. A century ago, women in the houses would have peered down through the slats, hidden from public gaze. The area was almost attractive. I heard drums and singing in the distance, and, following the sound, soon found myself peering in at the open entrance of a house.
The music stopped, I was waved inside.
A space was made for me, and within minutes I was offered apples, pomegranates and coffee. The women recommenced beating their drums and singing with an even greater rhythmic fervour. It was a wedding party, although the actual ceremony would be taking place the next day, at the registry office. When the couple danced together just the once, probably the only time in their lives they would ever do so, there was no meeting of the eyes. The people gathered here appeared happier for the couple than the couple were for themselves. The clapping of hands and the beating of drums would chase away devilish uncertainties. Such glumness, however, was only part of the ritual; it would be poor manners for the happy couple to appear overjoyed at the prospect of leaving home. An older Arab woman with a stern face got up to dance. She snaked her hands through the air, closed her eyes and smiled. The drums beat louder and faster. She shook her ample breasts wildly while the other women encouraged her with their ziraleet.
‘And light your shrines and chaunt your ziraleets,’ writes Thomas Moore in ‘The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan’ from his Lalla Rookh. The ziraleet is that sound which Alexander Russell, in his A Natural History of Aleppo (1794), describes as ‘the common manner of a company of women expressing joy, or any sudden exultation. The words expressed are Lillé, Lillé, Lillé, repeated as often as the person can do at one breath, and, being rapidly uttered in a very shrill tone, they are heard at a great distance.’ Russell continues with a comparison to passages from ancient Greek literature, pointing to when, for example, upon Xenophon’s retreat, the Greek women attending the army shout in this manner; and also when Penelope, after the first transports of grief on the discovery of her son’s departure, prepares a sacrifice to Minerva, and having finished her supplication makes a similar sound:
She ceas’d: shrill ecstasies of joy declare, The fav’ring goddess present to the pray’r: The suitors heard, and deem’d the mirthful voice A signal of her hymeneal choice.
Odyssey, iv, 1013–6 (Pope trans.) A friend of the bridegroom, Ibr∂h∏m, spoke English. He had lived for a couple of years in Ealing and expressed a deep affection for England. Or was it only for Ealing Broadway? I had little sense of his having been elsewhere. Ibr∂h∏m, his eyes mournful behind thick spectacles, looked as though he had spent an eternity filing papers in a dusty office, where neither youth nor old age would ever trouble him. If there was anything he could show me in Antakya he would be free to do so the following morning, he told me. I expressed a desire to see the old Ottoman houses.
‘Ah, easily done,’ he said, ‘I know many old houses.’ ‘Would we be able to go inside them?’ ‘Yes, yes, I know people.’
The next morning Ibr∂h∏m seemed only dimly aware of our con- versation of the night before.
‘Old houses? Huh! Yes, ah, houses.’ ‘Only if it’s not too much trouble.’ ‘What trouble?’ he snapped. ‘Where’s trouble?’ Ibr∂h∏m was all nerves. We entered one courtyard only to find
the broken outlines of what once must have been quite a handsome residence. Anything of aesthetic value had been destroyed. Sheets of corrugated iron patched holes in the walls. A waterless fountain stank of garbage.
‘This is an old house,’ he explained. ‘Do you know its date?’ ‘Yes, old!’ Ibr∂h∏m seemed not to understand what I was looking for. I surmised
that perhaps he was feeling awkward about knocking at strangers’ doors but at the same time did not want to disappoint me. I wondered how I might, without offending him, release him from his earlier promise.
‘The mosque of H. ab∏b al-Nadjdj∂r.’ We sped by without stopping to look inside. ‘Who was he?’ ‘A Muslim saint who lived alone in a cave up on the mountain.
When they cut off his head it rolled all the way down the mountainside, and where it stopped they built the mosque.’
Ibr∂h∏m seemed not to hear me and, as though he had entered upon some mad trajectory of his own, rushed me through a dismal area of dilapidated houses. I stopped to look behind me. The mosque was perhaps a mile or more from the foot of the mountain. I wondered how it might be possible for a severed head to roll that distance. After a few minutes we found ourselves at a door upon which Ibr∂h∏m knocked hard several times. There was a crazed look in his eyes. A man in pyjamas answered, and, shrugging his shoulders at our architectural mission, summoned us inside.
‘If these people knew who I was,’ said Ibr∂h∏m, ‘we would be asked to leave.’
We were invited to sit in a row of chairs in the courtyard where in the middle stood a tree, a single pomegranate hanging from one of its branches. A woman sliced onions, only rarely looking up from her task while a group of children with sores on their faces silently watched me. A chained dog whimpered beneath an unsupported stone stair- case. The man in pyjamas, perhaps following the movement of my eyes, walked over to the tree, and, as though against my willing him not to, picked the only pomegranate that was hanging there and put it in front of me, together with a knife. The dog whined. Our host, his wife and their children watched as I cut into what might have been the last fruit in the universe. A red drop ran down over its green surface. The fruit was not yet ripe, and its bitter seeds wrung the moisture from my mouth. A midday sun filled the courtyard. Ibr∂h∏m invited me to inspect the rooms upstairs. Would the steps with nothing beneath them finally collapse? I felt like part of an invading force. The master of the house followed us as though he, too, might make a few discoveries.
The rooms upstairs were in a considerably worse state than the area below. Ibr∂h∏m scowled with disgust as we inspected one where the walls had begun to bubble.
‘Ibr∂h∏m, should we be here?’
I was hugely embarrassed, but he wasn’t listening to me. ‘I used to play in this room,’ he hissed. ‘What? You’ve been here before!’ Any answer he gave now was not to me but to some other question
coiled like a snake deep within himself. Ibr∂h∏m submitted himself to its poisonous lashes.
‘This was my grandmother’s house. My second childhood home! See what these people have allowed it to become.’
Our host smiled uncomprehendingly.
‘When my grandmother died they squatted this place. This happens all the time, especially with these old houses, and because the squatters cannot afford to make repairs to them the houses are falling apart.’
‘And this is the first time you’ve returned?’ ‘Yes!’ I wondered at what point the idea occurred to him to make this dark pilgrimage. Clearly I had provided him with an excuse to come here. ‘What’s worse, if one of these people has an accident we can be held legally responsible. If one of these fools goes through the floor and breaks his neck we can be sued. It’s the crazy law here. What can we do? My family fought to have them removed, but the legal costs were too great for us to be able to pursue the case.’ We stopped at the entrance to one of the bedrooms. I could see through a breach where floor and wall had separated a boy parking his bicycle. The floorboards felt spongy, as though about to give.
‘Her bedroom!’ Although I could comprehend Ibr∂h∏m’s sorrow I felt sympathy too for the family who lived here. ‘She was from Aleppo and was legendary for her beauty.’
Ibr∂h∏m noticed me searching, perhaps a little too closely, for traces of that same beauty in him.
‘My mother was beautiful too, she still is, but not me.’
All this was said without a smile. Ibr∂h∏m’s eyes were beady with murderous rage for those who now occupied his family’s house.
‘Where do you live now?’
‘We moved in the seventies like everybody else, into the new apart- ment blocks north of the river, and when we left people from the villages moved into our old place.’ There was a fresh note of pity in his voice. ‘They really are poor, these people.’
We left the house, Ibr∂h∏m clearly much shaken by the experience. I bowed out of going to the wedding, saying that I did not wish to intrude. In truth, I was relieved to make my escape.