One of Muhammad's (ﷺ) grandsons is buried in Mirbat, Oman. It's not too far from a so-called vortex, a place deemed the Location of Gravity. This is because one can shift a car into neutral, and the car will roll uphill. (Please forgive the lack of video evidence. It was of such poor quality it would have been an embarrassment to share.)
The grandson several-generations-out is known as ibn Ali. Much of his work was done in the Hadramawt Valley of Yemen, but his maqam is built in Mirbat, where he died. The maqam is made of bright white plaster. Up close, one can see the effects of the sea air. The caretaker is a kind man who shows up almost every day after Asr prayer to give his salaams. His photo appears in Meetings with Mountains, a photographic narrative of "the role models, benchmarks, and exemplars of what it is to be human."
Some say only the invited come to visit ibn Ali. Whether seeker or tourist, believer or skeptic, one does not arrive without invitation or leave without blessing. That includes those cynics who make the stop but leave saying, "What was the point? What a waste of time."
On this cynic's first visit to Oman, there wasn't even even the chance for a "What's the point?" The road sign for the maqam was something to drive by, if it was seen at all. There was a stop at the castle about a kilometer down the road and a stop at a local resort. Then it was back to Salalah without so much as a picture. The maqam wasn't given a thought.
The next time to Oman, Mirbat didn't rate its way onto the itinerary.
The third time would make the difference.
The decision to visit Salalah was made sometime around September or October. The idea was to fly into Muscat, then over to Saudi Arabia for Umrah and a visit to Muhammad's sacred chamber (ﷺ), before returning to Oman for a sort of reorientation, via five days at the beach down south. Questions about the decision started rolling around by mid-November. Doubts persisted until the first week of January, when Meetings with Mountains fell open to the photo of ibn Ali's caretaker. It was about three weeks out from the trip. There would be no more second-guessing.
The funny thing? The visits to ibn Ali would end up totaling three, as if to allow for amends for the previous ignorance.
The first visit was a day that coincided with a funeral. Several other visitors were already in the maqam. We all talked a bit and prayed a bit. One of them was a man from Pakistan who would later offer a set of prayer beads when saying good-bye. We still write regularly, and he is as close a family member as any blood relative.
The second visit was much quieter. It allowed for the full weight and fragrance of the air to seep deeply into the heart. It was like the gravity that had fled the vortex down the road had somehow found its way here to settle.
The caretaker showed up just before Asr prayer, which he led. Memory fails as to whether someone else was there, too. Either way, we returned to the chamber where ibn Ali rests, and we sat without talking. It's not clear how much time passed. But when he left, the room seemed different. It would be a disservice to try to explain how.
The third and final visit to ibn Ali came on the same day that two college students happened to visit. They were grandsons of ibn Ali, which meant they were also grandsons of Muhammad (ﷺ) and some of the great saints of the Hadramawt Valley. These two friends were filled with kindness and light. The hospitality of their grandfathers was etched into their DNA.
At some point, they began calling me Uncle, partly due to the age difference but partly because of the immediate kinship among us. We were family. Being there together with them and ibn Ali, it felt almost as if God, knowing how difficult it would be for me ever to visit Hadramawt, had somehow brought Hadramawt to me instead.
When they heard the caretaker had led Asr at the maqam the day before, they were a bit surprised. They said he normally prayed Asr at the masjid next door before visiting ibn Ali. This was a special gift.
The caretaker arrived that day as I was leaving. They greeted him with the respect due an elder and a friend of God and then introduced us. We talked for a couple of minutes. Our time was brief, but he was incredibly warm and surprisingly jovial.
He went in to give salaams to ibn Ali while the new nephews led the way to the neighboring maqam of one of ibn Ali's students. The student's resting place was even more modest than ibn Ali's. "It is tradition," the nephews said, for an uncle to make du'a--a supplication--for all before leaving. I tried to explain that this so-called uncle was a toddler; they were more the elders here. But they would have none of that. They insisted.
So there the three of us stood. In the memory now, the maqam's lighting feels nostalgic, maybe sentimental even? It's hard to say.
One thing that's easy to say, though, is that this du'a was likely the most infantile they had ever heard. But it was sincere. And they knew that. And they loved that. And I loved them.