All posts by taoismandsufis

Old Damascus, Modernity and Cubby Houses

Old Damascus, Modernity and Cubby Houses

Walking in the souqs of Old Damascus, I felt comforted as I did as a child cosseted in a cubby house made of layers of bed spreads and sheets laid across chairs positioned at random in the room, the covers falling in odd directions and places as I looked out between them.  Whenever I had the chance to walk under archways of the souqs in Damascus, I floated.  My spirit would soar and my body lighten.

Modernity on

It may have been be due to the dimensions, the chaotic mix of structures, tarpaulins and stalls; the village atmosphere: shopkeepers chatting, sitting as if on a picnic; couples and family groups in no hurry to go anywhere as they ponder purchases. Cyclists touch their bells in a gentle warning as they weave their way like circus performers through the crowd. The haphazardness of it all, and the solidity of cobblestones, basalt, and walls roughly hewn centuries ago. Memories in the air, of camels and caravans, traders from far away places. The lack of self-consciousness. The layers that have been added by individuals, who responded not always aesthetically to what they created, but with an eye. There, in the moment. Their hearts would have lightened when it felt just right – our response after completing our cubby house. Perhaps that heart mind had a memory of much more rudimentary dwellings, when cave walls, stars and crescent moon, the breeze in bushes, and water rushing over rocks were integral to living.

Modern malls corporate built with their shine and uniformity leave me cold. But they are modern! There seems to be a sense that the road toward greater modernity is the road to perfecting life, people. It’s chilling.

Susan Dirgham

Revolution, Love and Other Matters. Jake Bilardi and me

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Finding Sign Posts to Love in Revolutionary Times

Like Jake Bilardy, the young Australian lured to the Middle East by the Islamic State, I was once attracted to a ‘revolution’, one in quite another ancient land.  After some years of protesting against war, conscription and what radical friends termed the American military industrial complex, I travelled to central China to teach English, to live behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’.  It was 1975 and I was 23 years old.

‘Red China’ was the antithesis of my insular world in Australia.

I had been a disconnected teenager. One thing that kept my fragile equilibrium steady was sitting alone in my bedroom, reading and re-reading classics, such as The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables, with the door closed on the friction and banality of family life.

Even as a young adult, I was painfully shy but attracted to ‘adventure’, unable to conceive of the difficulties I might encounter once embarking on that road. Yet, as it was in the novels I read, tragedy was fundamental to the adventure I sought. It wasn’t something I cringed from. I imagined that to shed my suburban torpor, I needed to experience suffering and become the person I wished to be, a person of substance.

Forty years ago, when I went to live in China, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution hadn’t quite run out of steam. Because I was deemed ‘red’ or perhaps simply ‘a friend of China’, I was offered a job teaching English to what were termed ‘worker, peasant, soldier students’.  I had no teaching qualifications or experience, but expertise wasn’t highlighted in communist China then.

While at university in Melbourne, I befriended some Maoists – people with an enviable certainty about an uncertain world. They seemed to have substance. I could respect them though I never felt inclined to join that ‘club’, and didn’t ever want to know if stories of weapons training in the bush were true. I was barely ‘red’.

But it was a time for extreme stands. For example, Malcolm Fraser was deemed a ‘fascist’ in some of my circles. And a good friend would wear a Mao badge one day and a badge honoring Stalin the next.  She was truly feisty and at times fiery.

My struggle with doubt naturally barred me from wearing such badges or formally joining a political group. I was comfortable being on the fringe. A history teacher’s instruction to ask ‘why’ never left me.  And my father, a closet nonconformist, enjoyed playing the Devil’s Advocate.  I developed a natural leaning to view things from more than one side.  I couldn’t get stuck in a party view of the world.

Besides, Tolstoy was a key reference point for me in the early 1970s and he had no time for dogma, but always some for doubt.

Though Maoism was an ideology that I never seriously attempted to adopt, I may have accepted Mao’s claim, “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun…” without wincing.  China’s history was testament to this and when ‘revolution’ is simply a word written on a page or one heard in the Melbourne University cafeteria, it is possible to romanticize it.

So it wasn’t the rigid revolutionary rhetoric that attracted me to China. Instead, I believe it may have been Life and Love, and a sense of Destiny.  I was like Alice in Wonderland, following some strange creature down a hole to an unfathomable world, one that could only be much less boring than my own.  And in that strange place, there might appear a mission to follow and a life to live.

I wonder if Jake was a little like my old self.

I was open to claims that Communist China was an incubator of something not only revolutionary, but also humane, even loving.  I was an idealist with a latent missionary zeal, keen to support the people of China in their efforts to establish heaven on earth.

I wanted to believe that one billion people were creating a utopia – even though the lives of most were still crushed by poverty.  I wanted so hard to believe that every person in China had reason to smile because of the transforming power of the Great Proletariat Revolution.

Ironically it was an English writer, Felix Greene, who encouraged me to imagine revolutionary China was a society that epitomized love.  Greene wrote enthusiastically about young people in China challenging the bureaucrats, wanting to save China from the corruption of an elite.  And Chairman Mao himself, the man at the top, supported these young ‘Red Guards’ against ‘rightists’, who could be found in all fields including education, the arts, the civil service, the army, and private enterprise. Labels dehumanized them and so they could be defied and defiled by teenagers.

What puzzled me when I first went to China was that workers and peasants were appointed managers because the revolution stipulated it, but when workers or peasants became managers, they became managers, didn’t they? They were given authority and so were no longer workers or peasants. But were they trained, competent managers? It was a simple, intriguing conundrum.

Some friends in Australia would cynically quip, ‘When the revolution comes, you won’t be able to..’, while the armchair revolutionaries I knew spoke about the revolution like children envisioning the world C.S. Lewis created in Narnia. I suppose I was one of them.  We could be flippant or dreamy, so divorced were we from the bloody and surreal realities of war and revolution. (My grandfather who had been in the 8th Light Horse in Palestine and Gallipoli never spoke about war. It meant his grandchildren were left innocent and he was less tormented by war’s memories.)

Since I had arrived in China after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, I could never truly fathom how bloody and tragic the revolution was.  I do remember seeing at least one army truck, with soldiers in the tray at the back; they stood alert and tense, their rifles and bayonets seeming to point out at people in the street. It was threatening, as it was meant to be, I assume. Behind them were prisoners, perhaps on their way to an execution ground.  There were still public executions that my colleagues at the foreign languages institute were obliged to attend.

And one friend, I discovered, had been the leader of a group of Red Guards.  With a pair of shears, she had executed a class enemy, a running dog, or something. The person she murdered probably had a label hung around his neck so his personhood would be disregarded.

It didn’t take me long to quit dreaming of a utopia in China.  The rhetoric at political meetings was tedious. My colleagues attended the meetings but paid little heed to the speakers. Some brought out knitting and chatted and laughed over that.

The revolution didn’t free people, in their dress, conduct or speech. To some extent, it entrenched a new set of rulers, tagged new slogans, and ensured another generation had some tough life experience. It brutalized. But when I arrived in China there were signs that restrictions were gradually easing.

I responded to the surreptitious pleas of local colleagues for copies of Agatha Christie novels by getting my parents to open an account at a Hong Kong bookshop. Boxes of books started arriving in Xian from Hong Kong. I laughed at myself for not realizing earlier that political treatises weren’t a natural reading choice of many people.

Fortunately, there was a more than adequate library for me at the Foreign Language Institute. Like my favorite classics, the stories by Jack London and Guy de Maupassant that I borrowed encouraged me to put myself in the shoes of people in grim circumstances, to esteem their courage, and also to consider the curious ways of man. If not ‘red’, I was still ‘pink’.

With the shine worn off the ‘revolution’, I was noting the foibles and ruses of those around me.

For example, I saw through the coy smirks of one colleague. He was a rising star with the cadres at the institute, and he maintained he only had sex with his wife to procreate, like all good communists. (Why did he even mention this subject?!) He was proficient in English, so I knew he knew more than he pretended to know when he asked sweetly, ‘Susan, what is a street walker?’  He should have asked me what ‘incorrigible’ and ‘sleaze’ meant! (His wife was a local, and the cad was having an affair with a sophisticated married colleague from Shanghai.)  For some time past its use-by-date, he believed he could still see ‘naïve foreigner’ written all over me.

As well as Jack London and French short stories, I immersed myself in Chinese classics from the dusty institute library, and read about poets getting drunk in inns, the war strategies of generals, and the guiles of female fox spirits. I joined the crowds at the local operas, and even got to love the screeching and scratching of singers and instruments. In the Student Dining Hall-cum-cinema, I inevitably took out a handkerchief during any North Korean film about the war and laughed at the local comedies. I swooned when my boyfriend recited traditional poetry or sang Italian folk songs. I flushed burnt love letters from him down the toilet, and I was embarrassed to hear a student speak about her love for Byron when I knew nothing about Byron. I heard the gossip about the dalliances of married colleagues; mourned the death of a student who hanged herself in the girls toilets after returning from her village; proudly drank 8 cups of Chinese spirits at one banquet; heard people sing arias while they waited for a bus on a dusty road traversed by mules. I took a photo of a down-at-heel artist painting peonies and another of a threshing ground on the banks of a yellow river, a river that could be crossed with the aid of a ferryman. With peasants, I pushed handcarts full of newly made bricks. I ate roasted sweet potato at the home of one colleague and listened to Dvorak played in another’s, really listened, and marveled at the beauty of my friend’s lace curtains and her cotton blouse. I greeted men working in the fields as I strode to the nearby pagoda, intending to climb to the top.  I got to know a real China, a genuine people.  And I fell in love.

Jake wasn’t as fortunate as I was. He was lost to his ‘revolution’. Unlike him, I didn’t get sucked into a maelstrom when I lived in China. A young disgruntled ‘revolutionary’ wacked me on the head with a hatchet once, but I survived.

And unlike Jake, I was able to live in Syria. I had a chance to love both it and its people.

Life can be a torrent.  I see the importance of revolutionary struggle, but there have to be guides. And lookouts for love always. Love can shine in the faces of strangers.

Taoism and Sufis in Damascus


Recording of the above musicians playing in Damascus, 2009.


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Why is it that I still have to work at shaking off the belief that to be religious is to be solemn and pure?  Is it the earnestness of sermons I have heard from pulpits, the celibacy of the more devout, or a primal fear of an all-knowing, all-seeing God that led me to think a line can be drawn between religiosity, the authentically spiritual and the profane, the everyday?

I have been able to let go of any personal commitments to an institutional religion.  This has been liberating. But I maintain a sustaining belief in ‘grace’, in the connectedness of all beings, in the power of love. And I look for opportunities to feed those beliefs.

More than a decade ago, an elderly Japanese man with an intelligent, gentle manner presented me with a copy of “The Tao of Poo” by Benjamin Hoff, and upon reading it I realised how much Poo Bear and I had in common, and so I became a Taoist. (This was not an overnight conversion. On one census form I wrote next to “religion”  – Christian/Taoist. And despite being comfortable with the label Taoist now, my understanding of and my relationship with the world beyond my senses is always evolving. )

Being a Taoist isn’t beyond me as I don’t really know what it means, and I don’t feel the need to know. There are no scriptures (I think), just cryptic verses from the Tao Te Ching which I may or may not understand.  It doesn’t really matter.  (Fortunately, I haven’t met another Taoist who will test my knowledge of the philosophy. Or is it a religion?) I’ve learnt to trust the ‘Universe’, perform those tasks which are in front of me as best I can, live in the moment, and not struggle against ‘nature’.

The trust I feel seems to have something in common with Islam, which can be translated as “surrender”. But with my cultural and intellectual baggage, with my “Poo” nature, I could never become a Muslim.  Though I can say “inshallah” (if God wills it) and “humdalla” (thanks and praise be to God) with quiet conviction.

Despite all this letting go of conventional religions, I wish to maintain a respect which is true for worshippers of the various denominations and sects within those religions. My only knowing one language, my being disinclined to study theology does not help me in this endeavour.

However, visiting Damascus has opened a door not only to Saint Paul and Straight Street, to mainstream Islam, but also to Rumi’s poetry and the mystery and wonder of the Whirling Dervishes.

I first visited the Omayyad Palace Restaurant (down a narrow cobblestoned laneway barely 20 paces from the Umayyad Mosque) in December 2008 to hear these musicians and to see the young boy and the tambourine player whirl. They perform every night and their audience are mostly groups of European tourists attracted to the restaurant by its rich interior, the delicious buffet dinner and the dancing.

I assume as well as being entertainers the three are Sufis. And I know the men have day jobs.  The oud player is a philosophy teacher and his friend an assistant engineer. In an effort to be respectful, solemn and intelligent, I asked the teacher what his philosophy of life was. Never being able to quote conversations, I can only report that he said something like “he doesn’t trouble himself with holding on to money”. It is an approach to life I adopt easily, particularly when I travel, as I almost believe I have a magic pudding bag of money to distribute in music and book shops, to young Iraqi refugees who clean my shoes, gaunt looking widows in black, on meals in courtyard restaurants, and on thirst quenching drinks of lemon and mint with ice.

The owner of the restaurant gave me permission to record the music, but the musicians themselves were initially bemused by my little recorder sitting on the table next to them.  They laughed, burped and got on with chatting, sometimes on their mobiles, while tuning their instruments and voices.  They began a tune, didn’t complete it, sang of messages written on the leaves of trees to distant lovers. And the customers gave attention to their cutlery, food, and conversation until the whirling began.

If they were true disciples of Rumi (as they probably are), I might have gotten a fart as well as a burp, since, like Taoists, Sufis appear to accept without embarrassment the existence of the divine and the profane; there is a natural play between the two.  This mixing of the mystical, the search for a greater truth through dance, and the human, the basic, strikes a chord within me.

These entertainers, Sufis, take me gently into the world of Islam, and hopefully into a friendship I can sustain with religion.




Flag as offensive  Image of susan.dirgham said 5 months ago

Dear Guest,

Thanks for visiting this page and for your comment.  I agree with you. It is definitely not necessary to be religious to be good. One of the most courageous and kindest people I’ve met was a teacher in China; she was or had been a communist. However, she was someone who could be awestruck by beauty in literature, art and music. (Karen Armstrong might view that sense of awe as a ‘religious’ experience.) Anyway, she risked her career to support me, passing letters secretly between me and my Chinese fiance (this was at the end of the Cultural Revolution).

And without a doubt religion has been used to identify a tribe and to divide and rule.  From Malcolm Fraser’s biography, I’ve learnt about the ugly sectarianism stirred up in Australia by PM Billy Hughes during WW1. I witnessed the results of that as a school kid in the 1950s, when Protestant and Catholic kids threw stones at each other.  Now, very ugly sectarianism is being stirred up on a much bigger – much more lethal scale – across the ME for political reasons.  The Islam I encountered in Syria and the Muslims I befriended expressed an Islam that was gentle, true I believe to the spirit of the religion as expressed by the prophet Mohammad.  However, something extremely aggressive and brutal is being stirred up by some clerics, principally by ones outside Syria with Wahhabi, Salafi, or Muslim Brotherhood connections and with direct or indirect links to the very rich and very powerful.  And their fatwas which basically call for genocide are not condemned.  If a war is to be engineered, this is one useful ingredient.  In a way, Pauline Hanson did something similar in Australia, stirring up ugly tribal, rather than religious, loyalties.

How could a war be engineered without this resort to religion? I don’t know. Do powers resort to a racism or tribalism which is perhaps innate but unacknowledged?  Reports suggest there could be a war this century between the US and China. Will it be religion or race and tribe that determines which side we in Australia take? And the ‘liberalism’ that John Pilger has written about is a ‘religion’ in a sense, do you think?

I believe some of the bravest and finest people in Syria today (millions of them) get strength from their faith.  This faith does not lead them to kill and cry out “God is great” (only a very small minority of people do that; unfortunately, weapons, money and a drive to kill provide them with a ‘voice’).  The faith of the vast majority of Syrians (across all the religions and sects), I believe, is one which keeps them fixed on a belief in peace, reconciliation, and love.  Syrians do often use that word ‘love’ – love for their fellows no matter what their religion as well as love for their country.  I trust in that ‘religion’.  Let’s hope another which is based on greed and fear, money and power, doesn’t dominant this century.

Kind regards,


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Guest said 5 months ago

“But I maintain a sustaining belief in ‘grace’, in the connectedness of all beings, in the power of love. ”