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Genghis Khan and velvet ropes.

Updated: Feb 26, 2021


A guy from rural Kentucky isn't often having to track a muezzin. So, when the adhan went off in old Bukhara, the voice sounded like it was coming from everywhere and nowhere, all at once.


It was a cold day--like, deep in your bones cold. Well, it seemed that way anyway, probably because the sky was almost colorless. It was like someone had taken a giant paper towel and sopped and blotted until all that was left was a slightly tinted stain.


A lone photographer was standing at the end of an alley. He knew the way and pointed. It turned out the prayer would be held at the Kalan Mosque.


The Kalan Mosque is a breathtaking building. It dates back about 600 years. Actually, the history goes back further than that, but there's no need to go into all of it here. What is worth mentioning is that, when Genghis Khan saw the site, he almost cried he thought it so magnificent.


Then...He set it on fire and watched it burn.


The site would lie in ruins for generations, somewhere around three hundred years give or take. After the eventual rebuild, it would take yet another six centuries before the time would come time for this prayer, on this day, with this collection of supplicants all gathering together.


And after?


We would all disperse, likely never to gather together again, there or anywhere else.


Obviously no moment can ever be relived. Even if we try all kinds of logistical gymnastics to recreate it, we can't make it happen again. It can’t ever be the same as the time that came before. It’s a reality of our temporal world. But that said, the realization of a moment's uniqueness can seem weightier at certain times and in certain places, can't it?


Just across the way, on the other side of the minaret (a tower even Genghis Khan couldn’t bring himself to burn), a handful of tourists were milling about the campus of the Mir Arab Madrasa. They wouldn’t stay long. The velvet ropes cordoning off access past the reception hall meant there wasn’t a whole lot to see. In fact, within a few minutes, there were only three of us still loitering around.


The couple talked and pointed and took photographs. They tried to step around the barrier, but the security guard asked them to move back to the other side. Soon, they were off on their way, too.


A handful of students started filing into the prayer room, just off to the side. It was apparently time for second Dhuhr. One of the students glanced over and did a double take. You know that look when you're doing a crossword puzzle and you just can't think of the word? It just won't come to mind? Well, that was his face. You could see his mind working. "Wait. What am I seeing? It's not what I'm used to seeing." Then, a deciphering. ”Hm..." Then...his whole body smiled. He must have found his word. His sincerity and warmth reached across the thirty or so feet spanning between us, and he waved an invitation to join him and the others for the prayer.


Can there be an embrace from ten yards out? It sure seems so.


Other than salaams, smiles, and “rahmat," nothing would be said. There wouldn’t be a chummy, get-to-know-one-another-coffee afterwards. There wouldn’t be a, “Don't forget to write.” No, this was to be about one prayer. One beautiful prayer.



Two years later, even the memory of what he looked like is unreliable. Such is the state of things for one who suffers from a mild case of facial recognition disorder. It’s not the worst case one could have, not by any stretch. Some people with it can’t even identify their spouses or themselves in a photo. So, no, mine’s not like that. Well, except for once.


One time, my wife got a completely different haircut. She was playing the piano in the living room afterwards, and the oddest thing happened. When this weird, slightly mis-wired brain caught sight of her for the first time, it had to go through a process that couldn't have been too dissimilar from the one the student at the Mir Arab Madrasa had seemed to go through. "Wait. What am I seeing? It's not what I'm used to seeing." Then, a deciphering. ”Hm..." Then...When the word came, my whole body smiled. (I also got a little teary-eyed.)


Anyway, all that to say, conjuring up precise features of what people look like has never been a strength. There's no way to tell you the color of that student's hair or whether his nose was crooked. There is no way to say whether he was handsome. There's no to way to say he reminded me of so-and-so.


But this, too, comes with its own simple grace, because it ensures there is nothing superficial left to speak of. The only things that can be spoken of with certainty are his bewilderment, his acceptance, his hospitality, his sincerity, his kindness, his acceptance. These are the things remembered. These are enough.


These are memories worth waiting six hundred years for.



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