Reading from Ibn Arabi
Poem Read in the video is by the 12th Century Sufi Mystic Ibn Arabi
I believe in the religion
Whatever direction its caravans may take,
For love is my religion and my faith.
The day after the Pulse nightclub shooter in Orlando killed 49 people, between The Golden Lantern, one of the New Orleans’ many gay bars, and the Pharaoh’s Cave, an Egyptian import shop, two friends, Bud and Khaled, read the poem above, by 12th century Sufi poet Ibn Arabi, in Arabic and in English. It was a small act of solidarity between two communities with which the atrocity was associated, an iteration of love in the jagged reverberations of that hateful act.
The Pharaoh’s Cave is our family’s store—really my husband Khaled’s store, where he sells “treasures from Egypt,” everything from statues to incense to dresses to belly dance costumes. You name it. If you could find it in a stall in Alexandria’s “Street of Squished Sisters” (our translation, which we usually shorten to “Squished” as in “Are we going to Squished?”), a labyrinth of vendors sprawling, like everything in that city, beside the sea—if you could find it in Squished, you might be able to find it at the Pharaoh’s Cave.
The Golden Lantern is a twenty-four hour bar filled mostly with older gay men and raucous drag shows, though most anyone can be found there in its cool, air-conditioned darkness on summer afternoons. But when I picture the customers sitting at the bar, I always picture Winston, a regular there, who died a few years ago at age 87. I remember him with a yellow bowtie explaining when he met me, quite matter-of-factly, and with a wide, lovely grin, that he was in love with my husband. Everything about Winston was honest. And dapper. When he died, Khaled closed the shop and joined them in the second line to inter his ashes.
Second lines not only mourn the dead but also celebrate them, and brass bands thump and shape the bereaved’s movements behind the coffin. They thump and shape the rhythm of the city, too, at least for me.
At the Maple Leaf Bar, the Rebirth Brass Band plays every Tuesday as it has done for thirty-odd years, in constantly changing iterations as new horn players join and others start their own bands. The place is always packed, and hot, and the best way to hear the music is to lose yourself in it, to feel, through your feet, the unamplified horns throbbing through the wooden floor and moving you against and with the other bodies with their insistent, ragged momentum.
After Orlando, I went with a friend to go to a Rebirth Tuesday. Immersed in the music at one point, I drifted to the streets of Waneena, Khaled’s village in Upper Egypt, the Sufi musicians coming with the drums and the wild, high flutes as they’d thread through the fields, picking up people along the way. Their playing usually marked an occasion such as a wedding or our returning with our half-native children to be blessed by the family. The music floods the houses, takes you over….
I swam back to myself, dancing now on a side bench of the Maple Leaf. From there I looked out over where I was, with this huge crowd of people all jammed together, with only one door out of the room. Suddenly my head felt drenched with a hot steam, and I could not quite breathe out. I imagined someone walking in and spraying bullets. So many people would die.
I thought about Orlando and how those who came to remove the bodies heard the repeated, individualized ring tones of loved ones singing from the pockets of the dead.
I had to stop thinking: focus on the shine of the horn of the trombone, the big papa sounds of the tuba. I got control of my breath as I dimly remembered doing years ago, after the hurricane, when I had regular panic attacks. Then I weaved my way through the crowd and out into the thick night air.
When it became clear that the shooter had a Muslim background, I immediately worried about Khaled but did not want to call and make it clear that I was. Maybe that would make him worry more, or maybe he’d worry about my being worried. When we finally talked, I asked if he was okay and he said he was just worried about the guys next door. How sad they must be. How unsafe they must feel. I was worrying about him; he was worrying about the guys at the Golden Lantern. I thought about how we were all close enough to worry about one another. Like family does. Or should.
When news of the shooting came out, the guys at the Golden Lantern got together to do what they always do: drink. Bloody Marys if it’s still morning. Later in the day: you name it. The few times I’ve filled in for Khaled at the shop so he could work a festival, the constant thumps of the boom-boom music still playing from the night before punctuated the echoing chants Khaled likes to play when he opens the store. Gravelly morning voices outside smoking cigarettes: “Hey baby,” they holler in. “How’s the kids?” Many afternoons someone would come next door and give Khaled a bourbon and coke, which he would be grateful for, but never drink because he does not like to drink in the daytime.
Our kids’ birthday presents are often delivered to the Golden Lantern and held in safe keeping if it’s after store hours. It’s the best place to send things you might not be around to get because they are always there, and trustworthy.
It’s funny: friends and family used to worry about our safety when we were in Cairo. The feeling of safety depends so much on who’s at the other end of the pointed finger, the barrel of a gun.
I know I am less safe now in America, the guns and divisions between people seeming to multiply daily. In my past, when I dipped into the nightlife more, I’d always felt safest in gay bars. When my friend Joseph and I lived together in Oakland, we frequented a place that dubbed itself a “dirty little biker bar” in San Francisco, and I could let my hair down and get “shit-faced” as we said then because I was not prey, not a target.
Maybe the only safety we can count on now is from the nets we make amongst ourselves. Across the various categories that put us on the other side of someone’s hate, someone’s scope, “caravans of love” between the Golden Lantern and the Pharaoh’s Cave.
Explore The Golden Lantern and Pharoah’s Cave