I steal out of my little room with the first call to prayer, and take a taxi through the darkness to the central souq. The stores are shuttered now, but the thronged smell of spices and bodies is everywhere, overwhelming. I walk past the great mosque, a center of the Islamic world since the 8th century, and along the thin alleyways that fork this way and that through the Old City of Damascus. Then, as every morning, I arrive at the marble floor that leads to the golden shrine.
A little door admits me to a space as brightly lit as a night-club, where a young man, black-suited and rosy-cheeked, is singing of the love that’s recently deserted him. Bodies are everywhere, hunched over, shoulders sagging, faces turned up now and then so I can see the tears glistening, running down their cheeks.
At the center of the space an old man is kissing, kissing a bejeweled grille as if saying goodbye to the woman he’d loved for sixty years and now will never see again.
I watch him, rapt, as pieces of colored glass in the windows send exploding reflections all around, and see him turn away, red-eyed and shaking. An old woman now is kissing round the same area, and she might be kissing the son she’s sending off to war.
Stooped figures are walking up to the glowing box that encases the shroud and kissing it, kissing it, as if to pour their hearts into this long-vanished girl of four.
A slim, elegant young man is running his hands over the golden sepulcher, protecting the body of the great-granddaughter of the Prophet, dead for more than a thousand years, and then he runs his hands over his face as if to transfer the magic. Stooped figures are walking up to the glowing box that encases the shroud and kissing it, kissing it, as if to pour their hearts into this long-vanished girl of four.
For forty-one years now, I’ve been traveling the world, in large part to see people give themselves over to what they adore. The black-hatted men pressing into the corners of the Western Wall, to confide their secrets—their prayers—to the ancient stones, the pilgrims carrying toy cars and bathtubs over the mountains to a shaman priest outside a cathedral in Bolivia. The white-robed figures walking for weeks to the cut-rock churches of Lalibela, the faces reflected, gleaming, in the flickering candles of the Jokhang Temple.
But never have I seen a sensual intensity and beauty to rival what I’ve found in Islam. Taxi-drivers in Isfahan recite the verses of Rumi, hymning a love that leaves him senseless and intoxicated; their cousins in Syria, eyes closed, breath heaving, cluster before first light at the graves of long-dead saints, bereft; even the roughest men in Damascus allow their hearts to break and bring their lips to a grille in homage and supplication. If you want to see what true love is, go—even if, in my case, you’re a Hindu from the US—to the Shiite mosques in Sunni Syria and watch in silence.
A kiss, you see, can carry not just a heart in it, but a soul.
The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.
The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.