If two sort of down-on-their luck drifters were chosen as proxies for the forces of the universe--one for good, one for evil--and a setting had to be found for their final clash, it would have to be Kars, Turkey.
Kars is a place where mysteries occur. Perhaps one of the most famous residents is a man who died and was buried there a thousand years ago. This is the great saint Hazrati Abul-Hassan Kharaqani of Khorasan (or Harakani in Turkish). He is known for his boundless ability to love and forgive. He is also known for a wry wit and his mystical visits with those who love him. There are many stories to tell, but we don't have permission.
The plaque on his mausoleum says he was martyred not too far from where he now rests. Yet according to many, Harakani never left the area of what is now part of Iran. When a scholar was once asked how Harakani could be buried in both places, the scholar said, "Allahu a'lam." Or, "And God knows best."
Whatever one says or believes about it, Harakani's influence on Kars is undeniable. But so is the that of the criminal underworld. And the reminders of Turkey and Armenia's long, tumultuous history. And the strand of what some might say is Islamic fanaticism, which Harakani himself would not have understood.
Winters in Kars are cold. The average low temperature in January is 1 degree Farenheit (-17C). It is a hauntingly beautiful time to visit.
No matter the cold, the mosque attached to Harakani's mausoleum is packed on Fridays, or at least it was on a colder than average day in January 2019. All those praying were packed in shoulder to shoulder, stretching from side wall to side wall, front to back. We were so tightly pressed against one another that when my balance got knocked off-kilter a bit, the support from those on either side prevented a fall.
After prayers, a weathered older gentleman--or more aptly, a gentle-man--thought the presence of an American Muslim to be an occasion worthy of a photo. And a hug. His face was sober in the picture, in an effort to show the gravity of the moment. It was not a frivolous selfie. He gestured for me to pray for him and signed he would do the same for me. "Mash'Allah," he kept saying. "Mash'Allah."
The next morning, the walk to the same mosque began well before the dawn prayer. It was minus 15 degrees Farenheit. When the imam arrived, he was surprised to see someone waiting for him, partly because he was used to being there all by himself at that time of morning. But it was also because the one who had chosen to join him was an American who spoke neither Turkish nor Arabic. The imam quickly ushered this stranger into the building to thaw. Soon, the imam's mellifluous baritone filled the prayer room with words of Surah Ya Sin, a beautiful chapter of the Qur'an that some say tells everything there is to know about all the mysteries of the universe, but that many readers will refuse to look. The Surah is also recited at funerals.
The remainder of the day was spent next door in the building where Harakani is said to rest. It was hours of just sitting and praying and pressing up against the steam pipes to stay warm. Other visitors would come and pray from time to time. Some would stay a while; some would rush through a couple of prayers and scurry off. Some were tourists who, out of their preoccupation of being there, often left the door open to the icy air. It was a good reminder that some things are more important than comfort. Other visitors were locals who carved out time to visit Harakani every day, maybe even multiple times a day. At one point, a mentally challenged boy came in to sell packages of tissues. Once word got out there was fresh buyer in town, three new boys popped in to try to get a share of their own. A woman who was a regular came in and recognized them as scamps, not the needy. She pitched a fit and ran them off, all the while making apologetic overtures toward me.
Late afternoon a man wearing a turban came in. His tunic was well-worn and weary, his beard thick and long. There were a couple of friends who sat alongside him for a bit. Soon, though, the others left, and we were the only two there. He waved for me to come sit next to him as he recited Surah Ya Sin. When he finished the recitation, he used his phone to ask me to join him for dinner. We walked three miles to a little mosque hidden among maze-like corridors. We prayed the sunset prayer together, and then he fixed a dinner of scrambled eggs and moldy cheese--extremely moldy cheese. And he said he loved me and would pray for me because Allah had sent me as his guest. His gratitude was obvious and sincere.
Two men joined us midway through. One of them was a younger man who spoke English. By the end of the dinner, the older man was also saying he loved me and would pray for me because Allah had sent me as his guest. He invited me to stay the night with him and his family in their home.
Others soon began to file into the mosque. It was time for the night prayer. We joined them, and they asked us to stay for tea afterwards. An imam from a nearby village translated. It became clear some of them were not necessarily aligned with Harakani's theology of tenderness. But it didn't matter. We talked for two hours, and everyone there was only gracious and kind. They asked if I could come back the next night. When I told them it was the last night in town, they nodded in disappointment. They all said they loved me and would pray for me. They gave thanks that Allah had sent me as their guest.
On the final morning in Kars, the imam was once again surprised to see this freezing face waiting for him to unlock the doors. This time, the imam asked me to join him in his office. For almost an hour, there was a conversation via telephone translator. The imam then typed it was time to think about moving along, as the dawn prayer was not long away. But before giving the adhan to rouse others out of bed, he offered a set of prayer beads as a gift.
After morning prayers, we went to a bakery owned by the imam's friend. The three of us sat at a table drinking tea and eating baked goods. For two hours, any time the glass would get low on tea, it would magically refill. Only two of us around the table could communicate with one another. But that made no difference. It was the hospitality. That's what they felt they were obliged to give. That's what they wanted to give. It's what they gave.
And now I tell you: I love them and pray for them because Allah sent me to be their guests. And they provided the warmth and welcome Muhammad (ﷺ) himself would have expected them to have given. May my gratitude be obvious and sincere.