Sayyida Zeinab [i] (سيدة زينب ١)
After having visited Iran last year, my first trip to a Muslim country, I had a rather skewed idea of what most mosques resemble. The mosques there are incredibly ornate affairs, with highly decorated interiors, and the exterior decorated with turquoise blue tiles and adorned in intricate Arabic calligraphy. This is not the norm in the majority of mosques I have seen since.
The district of Sayyida Zeinab, to the south of Damascus, attracts bus-loads of Iranian pilgrims to visit the large Shi’ite mosque there, which houses the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab — granddaughter of Mohammed — from whom the district takes its name. I was therefore interested to see what this Iranian-built mosque resembled.
The district was also the site of a recent incident here in the Syrian capital. I was at university on the morning of the 3rd December, when fellow classmates began receiving concerned text messages: “Are you ok? There has been a bomb-blast in Damascus.”
Western news reported this explosion, citing the name of the area, but to friends & family back home, the only name that registered was Damascus, where their loved ones were currently residing.
I immediately checked the news when I got out of class, where the BBC & the Guardian were reporting that there was an explosion on a bus carrying Iranian pilgrims to Sayyida Zeinab, but that reporters were not allowed near the site.
As the day progressed, the information was revised; the Syrian officials initially reporting that no-one had died, but the last I heard, it was 6 dead. The official line was that a tyre on the bus exploded whilst being inflated. Word on the street here in Damascus was that foul play was at work. The event also coincided with the visit of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Conspiracy theories abound.
When I first considered coming to Syria, some people close to me reacted with “are you out of your mind?” and to a certain extent, I can see why. The only articles mentioning Syria in the news recently relate to things like Damascus being where senior figures met to plan recent explosions in Iraq, that the Palestinian leaders of Hamas reside here, and then this, the first explosion since September 2008. Yet being here, this sort of thing never crosses my mind. The place feels incredibly safe, and the people very warm and friendly. Frankly, I feel more threatened walking through parts of London or Paris than I ever do here.