Jul/Aug 2005 Nonfiction

The Pied Piper of Damascus

by Lisa Ohlen Harris

You will come to our home.

She spoke to me in Arabic, in the imperative, her hand gripping my arm. I felt like a third grader trapped by a gang of playground bullies--no one could see my distress, surrounded by this tent of veiled women all wearing long black robes on a warm day in Damascus. I pulled my arm down and away; she held on and jerked back. They stood in a tight circle around me, touching my arms, my shoulders, reaching under my sleeves to feel my fair skin. When my scarf fell back, exposing my blonde hair, I heard one of them say the Arabic word for gold.

I lived with an Arab family in the Old City and had been on my way home from the university, pushing through the usual crowds in the big covered bazaar, Hamadiyye Souk. There was something slick on the ground, a bit of gunk there in the souk, and I slipped on it. When I stopped to scrape the sole of my shoe, I saw that what I'd stepped on was a mouse--a dead one. It had probably been run over by a watermelon cart, as it was getting to be summer. I scruffed my foot on the ground with every other step, attempting to clean my shoe without actually touching it. The Old City was full of mice--and rats, too, I'd been told.

Hamadiyye Souk empties onto an open-air breezeway with Roman columns. Ruins of an ancient temple, the Temple of Jupiter, line the walkway from the end of the souk to the big mosque at the edge of the Old City. I passed the temple and started to cut around the mosque wall, over on the southern side where the gold merchants have their shops all in a row. Dozens upon dozens of 18- and 22-carat bangle bracelets, necklaces, and rings hung in tiers along window-length display rods. The jewelry formed glimmering curtains in gold so pure it was nearly orange.

Back at our Old City home I was forcing myself to read through a chapter or two in the book of Exodus each morning, sitting alone in our open courtyard, my feet propped up on the side of our stone fountain. Seeing the windows of gold shimmering there in the market, I thought about those Exodus passages detailing how much gold was to be in the tabernacle: God was greedy for gold. It was a reverse-Midas thing; everything that God might touch had to already be pure, heavy, glorious gold. Most folks couldn't even see the glory of it, though, because God ordered curtains of goats' hair be made as an outer tent over the whole thing.

The Bedouin live in goats' hair tents even today. They weave the coarse, dark hair with loose stitches, allowing for ventilation on the many hot days. When it's rainy, the threads swell and tighten, making the tent waterproof. But don't get the idea that the Bedouin are poor, because they're not--at least not all of them. These days, it's common to see a satellite dish nestled in the truck bed outside a goats' hair tent, generator humming in the background. And the Bedouin women wear plenty of gold under their robes, adorned like every Middle Eastern bride. It's a convenient form of riches, really, because you carry it with you. I never thought about gold much until I lived in the Middle East, where women safely walk through alleys and poor neighborhoods wearing hundreds of dollars worth of it. It's such gorgeous stuff. Perfect for the nomad.

I passed one shop window with necklaces crowded so tightly on a display hook that they looked like a rope. And this was also when I saw the group of women up ahead of me. They wore strange clothing, dark robes embroidered across the bodice--I could tell that they weren't from Damascus. There were five women, but only two men--and all of them wearing wedding rings.

In Damascus, not so many guys took multiple wives, even though Islam and the Syrian government allowed it. It would be an economic hardship for most men, because Islam requires fair and equal treatment for each wife. If these robed women were multiple wives as I suspected, then under their sleeves each of them carried exactly the same amount of gold jewelry as the others, gram for gram. The women had been window-shopping when I first spotted them, but as I approached they stared at my fair features, distracted from the rows of bracelets and necklaces and rings by a better prize.

Lost in my thoughts of gold and goats' hair tents, I bumped into one of the women and pardoned myself in Arabic before moving to go around her. She looked directly at me and stepped back, opening the circle to draw me in. For some reason I stopped instead of continuing on my way, and their black robes closed around me.

The woman I'd bumped into wore some kind of bright head wrap--a twist of red peeked out from under the black veil. And now that I was beside her, I heard the bracelets under her sleeves, dangling into one another, making music as she gestured. This was before she grabbed me, but already she was standing so close that I could smell garlic on her breath. Her sister, or maybe a fellow wife, was beside her; I saw that one of the sister's front teeth was capped in gold. And both of them had blue eyes.

Now most of my Arab friends were dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed. Arab coloring is a study in desert shadows: olive skin and browns and tans. I did see green or blue eyes from time to time, and it always surprised me. My own blue eyes come from a family tree rooted in northern climes of Sweden, Germany, and France. They're a recessive trait, European. But these women--nomads, probably--were part of the ancient Middle Eastern desert where the sun bakes everything brown; why did they have blue eyes like mine? Though I was trying to think in Arabic, I kept coming up with the word swarthy as they jostled and grabbed at me; I thought of pirates and of slave traders. Now, what I'm about to say sounds like some sentimental poem I would have written back in those college days, but I can't think of another way to get this across. That woman's blue eyes met mine and held them, as in some fairy tale I'd forgotten. Her gaze calmed me, and again I heard the tinkle of gold bracelets under her sleeve. It was all so familiar. I felt like down deep I had once known this blue-eyed woman, or else someone very like her.

I couldn't understand much of her Arabic. This language spans dozens of countries and cultures over two continents, unified, one like Allah, but still there are dialect differences that make mutual intelligibility tricky, impossible for even the native speaker. The effort of listening made me feel as if I were underwater, holding my breath in order to keep my focus. I felt dizzy from the closeness of black fabric and the heat of their breath around me. After each question, I guessed at the meaning and answered yes or no in Arabic; the woman was pleased. Delighted, really. She embraced me and then kept a hand on my arm, gripping. This was when I understood every word.

You will come to our home.

I could almost see the Bedouin camp where they would keep me hostage, everything so different and isolated and all out in the desert far away from embassies and other foreigners to uncover my plight. Why did she want me, anyway? Did she see something in my eyes, something of her own blue-eyed ancestry, something connecting us back through time and culture?

It may be myth set in the heart of history because the records are questionable, but accounts of the Crusades speak of children's movements in 1212, between the Fourth and Fifth Crusades. In France, thousands of children--young ones not yet teens--left their carts and flocks and whatever else they were doing and ran one after the other, swarming the hills, leaving homes and lands, journeying to Jerusalem. Whether their parents tried to stop them or felt their hands were tied by a divine call, we don't know. But the children went in droves, following after a twelve-year-old peasant boy, Stephen, who called them all to come. History doesn't tell us much about Stephen, except that he was a skinny orphan kid with bushy brown hair and bright blue eyes. And that Christ came to him in a vision and told him to gather some friends and head on over to Jerusalem. The children--girls along with the boys--crowded after Stephen, following him south, toward the sea and the Holy Land. Meanwhile, in Germany, a medieval version of science fiction's parallel universe was at play as a second children's crusade formed under the spell of another pre-teen magic boy, Nicholas. The old Pied Piper story comes out of these bits of history, so whatever trick it was that Stephen had up his sleeve, there was something of mystery or myth to him right from the start.

The children marched south toward the sea, expecting that when they arrived at the Mediterranean, the waters would part for them. When the waves continued to roll but no dry land appeared, some kind ship holders gave the children free passage, cramming ships full from bottom to top with these naive--by now also ragged and hungry--European ambassadors. And of course the ship holders saw opportunity more clearly than the children did; the kids that survived the ride were sold into slavery in Egypt and the Levant, ironically living out their lives subject to those they thought would bow down at their own little feet when they entered Palestine. Their blue eyes still look out from Middle Eastern crowds through the souls of their Arab descendents.

In my own bed in our Old City home that night, I saw what might have been. I was the fourth wife, making the best of my misfortune. I would be the type to submit, not to plan an escape. Does that make me a victim and not a conqueror? Maybe all of my really courageous ancestors all took off over the hills with that kid, Stephen, pioneering to North Africa and beyond before they even hit puberty. They wouldn't be my ancestors at all if they were sold into slavery in the Middle East and married and had children and grandchildren until nothing was left of the European ancestry except an occasional blue-eyed child. My own forefathers resisted; we were left behind when adventure beckoned with blue eyes.

Meanwhile, the blood of my ancestral cousins--the ones who heard Stephen's call and followed--mixed with their dark-skinned captors, perhaps buying freedom for themselves and for their descendents. Those blue-eyed sisters were just trying for a family reunion, and I had resisted. I liked to think of myself as an adventurer, coming to Syria as a college student and all. But I wanted my adventure in pre-measured doses. I guess I would have been the child left behind when the Pied Piper came to town. And what did those old myths have to do with my experience in the gold market that day, after all? Genetics and history and fairy tale--they all blend together at some point.

Even in my dreams that night, though, I heard the hidden gold and felt something in that woman's eyes drawing me: blue calling to blue.

But I still haven't told about my escape. It's not so glamorous, hardly even an escape, really. It might have been the glint of the gold tooth in the desert sunshine that knocked me out of my momentary trance in the company of those veiled women by the gold market. I ducked and pulled away from the blue-eyed woman; she held my scarf, and I let it slide off in her hand. It was a blue scarf with metallic threads running through it. I'd searched a long time through a stack of scarves in the souk to find the exact blue to match my eyes.

I hurried around the mosque, past the old men smoking water pipes at the tea shop just down from the gold souk. I looked back before I rounded the corner--to check and be sure that one of them wasn't coming after me.

No one was there. They were gone, as if swallowed up by one of the stone walls. I don't think they could have all crowded into one of those gold shops-- they wouldn't have fit. But somehow, when I ran away, they all disappeared.

The whole of Damascus, it seemed, was pushing past me. I stood still, the only one not hurrying off to get somewhere. This was when I noticed that my ankle was hurting--I must have turned it when I slipped in the souk, or maybe when I pulled away from the woman with the blue eyes. In fact my whole foot was really tender and starting to swell. I couldn't go back and find those veiled sisters, even if I wanted to. My pace was too slow with the sore ankle.

As I limped my way home, I thought about the adventure I might be missing. Now they were all going back to their village or camp, riding in the truck bed, feeling the desert wind tug at their head coverings, laughing and singing and having fun, so much fun without me. I imagined that one of the women tied my blue scarf to the antenna of the truck and that the scarf's gold threads sparkled as it stretched and flapped in the wind.


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