Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Making of a Saint

With my parents coming from opposite ends of the country I spend a fair amount of the summer with the Libyan landscape whizzing by the car windows. The one constant feature, from east to west, and even the desert in between, is the Maqams.

Domed white buildings, built over the tomb of Wali, and all marked as such by a profusion of green banners, are just everywhere. Perched half-way up a hill in the J'bal Alakhdar, surrounded by a rippling sea of wheat, golden in the sun light; in the middle of an almond orchard, where goats prefer it's cool shade to the trees' more patchy shadow; or on the right hand side of a much used desert highway alongside petrol stations, truckers restaurants, and the occasional sheepherders' village.

Which was why I wasn’t surprised when, driving back from a cousin's wedding, we drove by a Saints tomb right next to the main road into Tubruk. It was larger than usual though, with quite a few cars parked nearby and people milling about.

I thought they were just using it as a place to rest, as travelers often do, for which reason Maqams, like roadside mosques, are never locked, and sometimes don't even have a door.
But no, this was the tomb of the Mujahid Yunis Hashim, a Maqam so famous I was told, that even now, with such superstitious practices on the decline, there were visitors from all over the Eastern provinces.

My uncle filled us in on its story: apparently the grave belonged to a Shaheed from the Jihad against the fascist occupation, who volunteered to hold off the Italians soldiers after a skirmish, giving the others time to escape.When his body was recovered and buried, some people, hearing his story, and the fact that he had been a member of one of the more mystically prone Sufi tariqas, began visiting his grave to seek blessings from one they considered closer to God.

(To those who think Sufis are a quiescent bunch, too busy chanting and spinning in circles to know, or care, if the Kaba was nuked: a ‘Sufi Jihadi’ is not an oxymoron)
So Yunis Hashim became a Wali of sorts, one to whom people would turn for guidance and example, and sometimes mentioned as an intercessor in a du’a, which is as always addressed to God, but prefaced by a formulaic reference ("By the high worth in which you hold Si ...") to a Wali.

With time the tomb was built, then a Maqam was added over it, and gradually gifts of tomb covers and wall hangings, without which no Maqam is complete, were embroidered by women fulfilling a vow or in gratitude for a granted prayer.
But there was still another stage in the evolution of this Maqam, which was responsible for its remarkable - I would say anachronistic-popularity.Sometime shortly before the sanctions regime ended a family, on their way to Egypt to treat their crippled daughter, stopped at this Maqam for a rest, as I had imagined the present crowd was doing. The girl was left inside the Maqam with her brother, as she was really suffering from the long journey, while the others went to get supplies from a nearby village.
When they returned they found the children asleep, and her father bent over her to wake her up, and as soon as he said her name -so the story goes- she stood up as naturally as any healthy child.The overjoyed father donated the money he was planning to spend on her treatment to extend the Maqam, whose fame has spread so widely that it now draws pilgrims by the score each week.


Brave Heart said...

i drove hundred times on this road, but i never stop to this place, i had seen many people visiting Awlia, and i always related to the ignorance and poverty. i remember one wali in Benghazi was built a roundabout around his magam and it located in posh area of Benghazi, people used to call him cidi wael وائل and consistently people from every where come to visit him and bring their sheep and leave them their all this in the roundabout, u can imagine the situation, many accidents were happen because of this, community people decide to one night they brought one loader and in half an hour the magam was evaporated.
btw which magam do u mean, is it that one before Tobrock gate in ur right hand side

red said...

The Shias are quite fond of visiting the maqams and at times wailing hysterically while throwing items such as plastic flowers in and around the compound. I am not sure of other sacts / or mazhabs in Islam but there is a minority of even Sunni Muslims, who may be on the wrong path, who seek the dead for worldly / material wealth. Shirik, I think that's the word.

globetrotting rien

duniazad said...

yes the maqam is in the position you describe, I think he is called sidi yunis hashim. The roundabout shrine scenes sound like something Zwawi would appreciate =D

globetrotting rien:
yes these practices are unfortunately widespread, though less so than in the past. It exposes people to exploitation as well. In some areas in Libya there are people revered not for their own deeds but for their descendent from such ‘saints’. They enjoy enormous power, and can benefit financially from performing blessing ceremonies. It’s even worse when they set up shop as healers. Some do have knowledge of traditional medicine, but others are basically quacks.