Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo photo credit: Anna Montgomery

This is the beginning of the poem I’m currently working on – it may be an epic or a series. I’ll make a new post when it’s complete (with definitions). If you read the beginning of this before you can scroll down to two stanzas above Old Cairo and pick up where you left off.

Crossing Thresholds

By the Citadel

The four centered arch,
pishtaq of the Mosque-Madrassa
of Sultan Hassan
draws me into the broad sehan
a foreigner and trespasser
though invited,
or more appropriately,
a paying guest –
(that only moves under armed guard)
an American woman in Cairo

One hundred degrees
stone radiates from
below my shoeless feet
a heat wave in the winter
that word looses all my associations
it isn’t redefined but obliterated
at home we get eleven feet of snow

Sultan Hassan’s body was never found
he was assassinated by Yalbugha al-‘Umari
the commander in chief of the army
a tale of power and betrayal
the mausoleum serves no purpose

Two minarets, though four were planned,
reach into a pale periwinkle sky
twenty million people peer through
the dust and smog toward the first
great falcon-headed God, Ra
to whom they owe their secret names
an ancient voice chanting creation

The minarets’ spiral staircases
long demolished by Sultan Barquq
to prevent attacks on the Citadel
means the muezzin must use the loud speaker
to broadcast the adhan,
to call all worshippers to prayer

In the dark cool by the praying seat
where no Qur’an rests
he stands beside me
not five feet away

I am in full modesty,
two layers of galabeyas
a tightly pinned navy hijab
covers every strand
of offending blonde hair

Muezzin’s song of praise
(he will not sing the adhan
it is not Friday
we are not Muslims)
is so beautiful I cannot speak

In this exemplar of Mamluk architecture
Ahlus-Sunnah Wa Al-Jama’ah
People of the tradition and the congregation pray
generously containing room
for the four Sunni schools:
Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali
Though through tradition
not room for a single woman

“The best mosques for women
are the inner parts of their houses”
said Mohammad

In America the movement
in mosques is towards “Pray In”
women desegregated,
praying in the main hall

I think about my female rector
in the Episcopal church
in our mountain town
on how the Anglican community
considered separating
from its too liberal cousin
the Episcopal Church of America
over homosexuality and the right
of women to lead services

I ask our Muslim guide, a woman,
Does it hurt, being unwelcome in the house of God?
Baudelaire ringing in my ears:
“I have always been astonished that
women are allowed to enter churches.
What can they have to say to God?”

No, she says,
it is much more convenient
to pray at home.

Glass lanterns adorned with calligraphy
sentries at the sabil,
fountain of ablution
a blue-eyed feminist
searching for meaning in all
this cryptic architecture

It is here, if I were a worshipper,
that I would cleanse my body
of the sand, filth, and oppression
participate in the wudu
the centuries, my inner helix,
resonating with the specters of
the spiral staircases of the minarets
past invisible barriers
to the musalla

Old Cairo

progressing through machine gun
guarded checkpoints at the perimeter
of Old Cairo past the Roman wall
to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun
high on the hill of Gebel Yashkur
the mound of thanksgiving

Here the staircase of the minaret stands
but the sabil is dry
the outer walls osculating
Beit al-Kritliyya joined to Beit Amnabint Salim
now a museum, Gayer Anderson House
named after the British officer
who lived there in the 40s

we enter the sanctity of the private space
through a doorway into a hall
that runs parallel to the street
it then turns ninety degrees so that
none of the interior of the house
can be glimpsed from the street

I have a ticket
I’ve purchased my pass
I didn’t knock three times
but the ghosts could hardly have answered

“enter not the houses other than your own
until you have asked permission
and saluted those within.” Yousef Ali

we proceed through the salamek as guests
the entire house is built from the inside out
so we won’t see the women

though in the courtyard
high above on another floor
is a balcony closet with a window covered
by an elaborate lattice woodwork screen

here is where the women would huddle
to be present without being seen
I squeeze through the tiny doorway
into the little box
and imagine the women whispering
about visitors in the house
how the ghosts have been scandalized

In ‘Till We Have Faces’ C.S. Lewis
argues that we cannot meet the divine
until we have an identity of our own
his heroine struggles to know her worth

worlds and millennia apart
Hatshepsut’s statues defaced
disfigured and buried in a pit
cartouches chiseled away
Pharaoh, yet how dare she claim the right?

we enter a confusion of staircases
that only connect certain floors
I’ve never been so disoriented in a house
so that the women can bring food
to guests and not be seen
keeping the privacy of the family intact

Wasn’t this the perfect set-up
for domestic abuse?
never seen and cannot communicate
then anything can happen
in this protected sanctum
that could’ve been her prison

I think about the lack
of a domestic violence shelter
in Douglas County, the richest and fastest growing
adjacent to our home county
the thinking runs along the lines of
they are wealthy women,
if they need a way out
they can simply buy it
often these women are
the most trapped, disempowered
with no access to the money

shouting behind high gated walls
in the privacy of the inner parts
of their homes


Muezzin’s Song (click to play)

Sabil, fountain of ablution, Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan photo credit: Anna Montgomery