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Steep stairs

By Layla Dowlatshahi
October 19, 2001
The Iranian

Excerpt from, Falling Rocks, a novel recently completed by Layla Dowlatshahi. Also see synopsis.

The street was asleep in the Ruesdandt neighborhood. Along the corners of the narrow cobblestone lanes, the vendors had yet to arrive on this early Friday morning with their carts of fruit and dried goods. It was fall in Hamburg, but already morning frost adorned the broken grass in the yard at the center of the Shule Heim. The chilly morning had even kept an owl nesting in the oak tree awake. It now sat on the barbed wire fence that encompassed the compound in search of rodents.

Across the street, on a section of land that had been vacant for many years, was the Ruesdandt Mosque. Army barracks had been built there to house World War I soldiers and later, a whorehouse, but nothing that was built there lasted. Wars were lost, businesses failed, marriages ended and children grew and moved away. The apartments erected there in 1947 as part of the reconstruction of Hamburg, came down. The lot remained vacant until 1973 when a group of Muslim refugees from Turkey moved into the dilapidated apartments across the street and the German government gave the apartments a name: The Shule Heim. The Ruesdandt Mosque was built the following year.

Atop the mosque was a massive, golden dome decorated with tiny exquisite blue and white Isnik tiles. A minaret on the left reached high into the Hamburg sky. Inside, the mihrab and the mimber were finely carved with white marble. Stained glass windows colored the incoming streams of light and in an alcove to the right of the kitchen for the poor, there was a tiny enclosed garden. In the middle of the garden a fountain streamed fresh water for washing of hands, feet and faces before prayer. On the floors of the mosque were Persian and Turkish carpets for the comfort of worshippers. A black curtain in the back of the mihrab separated the male worshippers from the female.

The Muslims, who arrived from every part of the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, used the money they earned building the Ruesdandt Mosque. It was not only the center of their religious worship, but a symbol of Muslim pride, a reminder that even in a foreign land, Muslims could keep a part of home alive.

The Ruesdandt Mosque took one year to build and one hour to burn.

* * * * *

The muezzin heard the aching cry as he walked along the street towards the Ruesdandt Mosque. He stopped and turned his head to listen. He heard only silence. He walked on, then again, he heard the inhuman cry. What was that? he thought. He listened, but heard nothing. Glancing down at his watch, he realized he was late and quickened his pace. He reached the back door of the mosque, but before he could unlock the door, another cry penetrated the early dawn. He shuddered before quickly slipping inside.

Inside, the air was chilly and the man rubbed his stiff fingers together to warm them before removing his sandals and placing them by the doorway. He then began to climb the steep stairs that led up to the golden dome. His breathing labored, he stopped for a moment, leaning against the cool stone tiles for support. What's the matter with me? Sweat from his face began to drip onto his neck and shoulders, soaking his caftan. With the back of his hand, he mopped the hot perspiration from his forehead. He let out a long breath, then slowly continued up to the muezzin chamber.

He was used to rising before dawn. His wife, Mahtab, whom he adored, would usually wake him just as the moon began to fade. He would lie there in bed a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then he would kiss Mahtab on the cheek, dress and then after a quick cup of hot chai, walk the familiar two blocks to the corner of Weiner and Mondum streets where the Ruesdandt Mosque stood. It was cloudy that morning, he thought, perhaps that is why I am so tired. I am old now. The walks to and from the mosque were taking longer and it was chilly for early fall, perhaps a foreshadowing of the cold winter to come.

"Merci Allah," he thought to himself, when he had finally reached the muezzin chamber. He unlocked the heavy stone door and stepped inside. He ran a shaky hand through his matted hair, trying to ease his breathing. He had always had a bushy head of curls, but lately, noticed it beginning to thin. Soon, he would be as bald as all the other men in his family. He shook his head sadly as he went to the small window and looked out onto the streets of the Ruesdandt neighborhood.

Every Friday morning and at five o'clock each evening, he would send out the call for prayer, the azan, beckoning Muslims in the Ruesdandt ghetto to come inside for their ablutions to Allah the Almighty.

"Inshallah," he thought, as he turned away from the window. Some, he knew, who came to worship at the mosque, came solely out of deference to their mothers, wives or husbands and had no heart for Allah nor soul for prayer. They used Islam like a cloak one is given during Ramadan and dislikes, but is reminded to wear because it is a gift.

He lit a jasmine incense stick before removing the Koran from the shelf above the windowsill. He kissed the Koran gently, then flicked on the loudspeaker, opened the Koran, pushed his lips against the microphone and was ready to begin the azan.

The cry rose out of the night again.

"Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar," he began, his voice resonating to the words in the Koran. His body began to sway back and forth with the words. Then, as if caught in a frenzy of faith, he began to sway faster and faster. The pain returned to his chest and head.

Again, the cry rose out.

"Allah Akbar... Allah Akbar," he continued, trying to go on with the prayer while in extreme agony. Suddenly, he collapsed to the floor, still clutching the Koran in his hand. He couldn't breathe. When he tried to take in a slow breath, it felt like a thousand needles shooting into his heart.

"Allah Akbar...," he rasped, for the last time.

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