Transcribed Notes of Professor Michael Fuller

(Information in brackets ( ) added to clarify but not part of the original notes)

Michael Fuller
Notes for 12 July 1994 (Tuesday)

Persons involved in these notes:

Michael Fuller, Professor of Anthropology, SLCC
Neathery Fuller, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, SLCC
Sharon, an undergraduate student studying at both Grinell College and SLCC
KT, a longtime friend of Professor Fuller and well-known scholar in Damascus, Syria
Sheik Muhammad (alias), important Sufi leader in Damascus, Syria


Professor Michael Fuller sketch of the room where he witnessed a Sufi ritual


Professor Fuller's note showing a sketch of the Sheik's staff

Awoke at 7:30 AM

Arrived in Damascus from Latakia (Syria) around 5:30 PM.

Neathery Fuller, Sharon and Michael Fuller were outisde the Hotel Sultan (in downtown Damascus) when KT pulled up in his compact blue car. He greeted us and asked if Neathery and Sharon had scarfs to cover their hair - they didn't.

We drove past Bab Sharkey (well known landmark in Damascus; Arabic for "East Gate") and turned right the tomb of one of the Prophet's companions. Drove a couple of more blocks and parked. By good fortune, a shop about 100 feet away was open and sold me 2 white scarfs for the cost of 300 SL (about $7.50).

KT said that the we were going to attend a dhikr (Arabic, "remembrance or mentioning of God" - Sufi religious meeting) that had already started. He knew this because he could hear the sound of the drums.

KT explained the pre-Islamic root for Dikir appears in Ugaritic and Eblite religious texts (dating 4000 to 4500 years ago). He explained that the term dhikr was equal to Dervish (the word used in Turkish) and Fakir (in Hindi).

I asked if I needed to say anything in greeting the men at the Dikir. KT said that I should say "Salaam Aleckom" (Arabic, "Peace of God"...a common greeting among Muslims). We entered the house of Sheik Muhammad. He has converted the first room on the right side of his house into the Sufi meeting place. The room is not a mosque because it has no mikrah (Arabic, niche that helps one orient towards Mecca when praying). One wall is handpainted with a masive mural of the great mosque of Mecca and the Kaba. The murale is complete with the minaret and is well done. I suspect that it was scaled from a smaller poster because the persepctive is correct.

KT escorted Neathery and Sharron to a courtyard that has a concrete grill window which looks into the Sufi meeting room. KT and I removed our shoes and entered the room. I imitated his moves. He held his hand open and turned upright in prayer, then made a single stroke of his face with both hands (as if washing his face with invisible water). He walked across the room.

Sheik Muhammad was seated crosslegged on a cushion with 3 other men. KT shook hands with each man and introduced me and pointed towards the courtyard as he explained about Neathery and Sharon. Sheik Muhammad greeted me warmly and did not seem concerned that I was neither a Syrian nor a Muslim. Within 10 minutes there were about 20 men in the room and within an hour there would be almost 50 men in the room measuring approximately 4 by 7 meters (12 by 21 feet). Two ceiling fans circulated the warm night air and the addition of the men turned the room into a sauna-like environment.

The walls, other than the mural wall, are decorated with framed needlepoint patterns, cloth prints, prints on paper, and at least 100 Sufi balls with long spikes, knives, swords, daggers, etc. I had seen such things before in Aleppo (another Syrian city) in the tomb of Sufi sheiks, but not in an active Dikir.

A big drum dominated one side of the room and I was placed at an arm's length from it. I assumed a kneeling position with my feet directly under my butt. I kept this position for almost 40 minutes until I saw other men assume a cross-legged position or a bent leg, one horizontal and one flexed under the chin, posture.

After 20 minutes, a man in his 30s came and knelt before the Sheik. The drummer stood behind him and opened up a large tan colored cloak like the Sheik wears over his day-to-day dishdash Arabic, traditional man's cotton floor length tunic). The drummer held the cloak about 2 feet higher than the man's head while the Sheik spoke. Suddenly, in one quick movement the drummed wrapped the man in the cloak, covering his hands, and leaving only a small part in the cloak facing the Sheik.

The drummer resumed his steady beating of the big drum and the congregation began singing. Five men played handheld drums called tar (Arabic, handheld frame drum that resembles a tambourine but without metal clappers) that resemble an Irish bodhran drum (but without the crossbars inside the drum). The big drum was an oil drum cut to 1/3 of its height with leatcher stretched over each end and held by leather laces. This is kind of an industrial form of Tabl baladi (Arabic, "A large double-headed folk drum, played with beaters"). (The metal version of this drum would be cheaper and more durable than the older style wooden Tabl baladi, but the metal variety is not as elegant.)

KT whispered to me that the cloaked man was sick and was being prayed over by the Sheik. An 80 cm. (2.5 feet) long wooden staff was used by the Sheik in the healing ritual. KT said that it functioned like Moses' staff and that the Sheik's staff was powerful enough to move the world. The Sheik touched the staff to the man's head and then along his shoulders. Finally, he rested the head of the staff inside the part of the cloak.

The cycle of song came to a conclusion and a younger man came forward. He was in his 20s. He would also be cloaked and stroked with the staff.

Finally, a third man, wearing a kafiyah (Arabic, "head covering for a man that usually has a checkerboard-like pattern in red or black) came forward. He was in his late 30s, tall, and handsome. He surprised everyone by rushing to the wall and drawing one of the swords that hung on the wall. It took only an instant for him to draw the sword and turn to charge (in my direction). He was literally tackled and disarmed. I thought that he was staring straight into the painted image of the Kaba. The Sheik seemd very upset thinking that the madman might strike someone like the sick men or me! [KT and other men also thought that the 3rd man had intented to attack me... it was quit a cause of excitment.]

Each man knelt for about 20 to 25 minutes as the Sheik prayed for them. He touched the head of the 1st and 3rd men, but cracked the arms of the 2nd man whileholding his hands. KT said that the 1st and 3rd men suffered from mental illness. [I might imagine the 1st man to be depressed from his body language and the 3rd man looked and behaved almost like a Schizophrenic].

After the third man returnd to this place, then the Sheik and his students, he used the term Talib, stood and began to twist, sway and jump to the drum beats. The normal drummer had been given a rest by another man. After 30 minutes the electric lights were extinguished and two dim green colored night lights were turned on. This was the signal for the whirling dance. The good drummer danced, a marginally retarded young man danced, and 3 or 4 other men. Never more than 3 or 4 men were doing the whirling dance at a time.

[The lights returned to normal and some men began to slip out. I nudged KT that we should go and he agreed. Neathery and Sharon were eager to be "recovered" and KT drove us to the Hotel Sultan. Our ears were ringing from all the drumming and we all wanted to talk at once. We were also famished, so I recommended that we go to the Hotel Sham where the restaurant served pizza late into the night. We ate pizza and wrote in our fieldbooks while sharing insights into what had happened.]