An Essay on Nizamuddin by Marta Franceschini


I sit in front of the tomb for hours. I look so intensively at it as if I were expecting some answers back. I lie, my back on the surrounding tombs, and I feel totally comfortable.

In the West cemeteries are always sad, scary and sinister; you don’t go there without any reason, and moreover never at night. You walk among the gravestones in an uneasy rigidity, both of mind and body, you pray your Dead and then you leave; you wouldn’t hang around there, you wouldn’t sit down to enjoy the evening breeze in the hot season, or to listen to any improbable music. In fact, those who go there at night are called insane. Besides, tombs of western saints are generally well protected either within churches or close around them; either they are rapidly and austerely worshipped or they are somewhat forgotten.

But in front of the Dar-ga I sit for hours in a delighted spirit. I have no explanation for that. I don’t belong to Islam nor to any other religion; I don’t actually worship there and tourists, usually, when have been there once, don’t feel the need to go back again. While I do.

Since I believe that the try of explaining emotions through rationality is a useless job, I won’t go for it. Emotions are so sublime and precious that the best I can do is to listen to them.

I love to walk barefoot on the pavement. I understand it is a sign of respect and humility, yet to me it is, more then anything else, a pleasure. I feel an immediate communion with the environment, I pursue the fantasy of the thousands of bare feet that must have walked along  the same paths and I feel the warmth of them all.

I also perceive much less then anywhere else the difference between me and the others: in the West, shoes are such an important status- symbol! To me, as I suppose to  most of the westerners, to be in a place where whoever goes around, young or old, rich or poor, goes without shoes, is very unusual. But many of us don’t seem to enjoy it. In our culture barefoot brings only one image:  the one of the beggar, somebody who has not even a pair of shoes left, or at most the romantic one of the gipsy: in other words, the western equivalent of the outcaste. But the so called civilized majority don’t approve it. It is commonly correlated with the lack of cleanliness; this is why you can frequently see western tourists going around mosques or temples well equipped with extra-socks even in the hottest season.

But luckily, I was never afflicted by this hygienic-mania. My very first morning in India I walked right into the Jama Masjid, without hesitation. And since then I never gave up the pleasure  of that barefoot walk.

I have grown a love affection towards Nizam-ud-Din. Anytime I have a chance, I go there; sometimes just to wonder around its narrow streets. I’d like to stay there longer but I have to struggle with my doubts: what will the people think seeing me so often walking alone around those lanes, looking into those courtyards, peeping into the houses, the windows, the shops and the restaurants? I don’t want to be intrusive. Still, I feel as a lover who walks under the windows of his/her beloved just to see if the light is on or off.

So I go there again an again. I feel the magic of its atmosphere and I believe it is due to the tomb. The more I get closer to it, the more I feel its presence.

Then, something funny happens: I don’t want to be noticed, I cover my head with a scarf, I just strongly desire to be as less visible as possible. I suddenly feel uncomfortable in my jeans and T-shirt, with my short hair and my pale face. I finally realize  I envy those women wearing purdhas. I imagine that with it I would feel much more free then without, more  at easy and relaxed.

It takes a long time for myself to admit it and even longer to accept it. Nowadays, in the western society the outward appearance has become so fundamental that it has almost overtaken our internal consistence. What’s even worse, it has become a symbol of freedom, to such an extent that most of the time we are made slave of it. We feel we loose our identity if we don’t have the right dress on. Sunday Mass in our churches looks too often like a fashion parade. We have so little space left for our feelings that we are compelled to say as much as we can only by our appearance.

After all it is a desperate politics. It’s a way to cry out what we keep in. Any part of the body which is worth to be seen, must necessarily be shown up. The competition is wild and the responses are wilder. But could I ever explain to my emancipated female-friends that I understand the freedom under the purdha? Could I ever explain it to any emancipated Muslim woman who has probably struggled hard for the suppression of this backward habit? Or wouldn’t she consider my attitude an insulting contribution to her condition? And not being a Muslim, could I wear the purdha  without hurting the Muslim feelings? Or would it look just like a wrong interpretation of something which doesn’t belong to me at all?

I finally decided not to do anything about it. I will leave the purdha in my prohibited dreams, the only place where it has probably a right to stay.

A mother with three children stops respectfully a few steps from the entrance. She is carrying some gifts for the saint in a small basket. The mother and the daughters have a longing look. Then she gives the basket to the small boy and gently pushes him towards the tomb. Their eyes follow him while he innocently walks  in the direction of the entrance. I can see from their faces that they concentrate all their hopes on that young and fortunate creature. I can read in the eyes of the girls the sadness that is there since they discovered they will never be allowed in, all their lives long. They wait in anguish while someone has brought him in. Finally, he emerges with a triumphant smile. He must be already aware of his privileges.

I feel deeply annoyed. I believe it is totally unfair, I don’t even know why it is so, I cannot find one single reason for such a restriction.

I think again of the west and I spontaneously make comparisons. In the western world it is not even imaginable such a place where woman are not allowed. Anything a man can do, a woman should be able to do as well, at least in theory. In practice, things are slightly different, but times are changing and we hope towards the right direction. But I, as a woman, know also the other side of the medal. The prize of this freedom is a high one, and is counted by the number of rapes and physical attacks to which women are daily subjected. It is true that in the West women can go wherever they want day and night, but they do it at their own risk. They live in a violent society and they must start very early to deal with it. What is worse, violence is becoming more and more perverted, whereas sexual appagation is no more the ultimate goal, but just a pretext. And against such a sick mentality, there is no defense.

I cannot accept emancipation without respect. As a woman, I want them both. Shouldn’t emancipation be implicit in the concept of respect? In my opinion, it is the first step towards liberation.

I sit in front of the tomb and think about it over and over again. Meanwhile, I watch women coming and going. Some of them just stop nearby for a short time, some remain there still, with their hands uplifted and their lips imperceptibly stirred by their mourning. Some lie down almost on the threshold, their bodies stretched forward and their heads abandoned on the floor. I look at them and I wonder if all that is ever going to change. I don’t really know what I wish for them.

A young man runs along the perimeter of the tomb. At each corner he hugs one of the four columns and kisses it passionately: he keeps on doing it endlessly. His face shows a mixture of peace, love and fulfillment. To my eyes he is so perfectly human. I have seen more human beings at this spot in six months then in my 27 years of life. Their presence heals me. It seems to help me on getting in touch with the inner part of myself. Looking at them I understand the enormous force of attraction that Islam must have exerted all over the world. I realize that its power of conversion could not be only the sword.

This fascination touches me to such an extent to make me think, very often: if I were to believe in one god, that would be the ONE.

I see that religion fulfill them so deeply that they almost reach a state of ecstasy. I see that when their forehead finally lean on the step of the entrance and they start kissing it over and over, they are just answering to their deepest desire; it is not a mechanical rith, neither something that they are obliged or requested to do. On the contrary, it is just what they were longing for, as much as you want to hug and kiss someone you love. People come from far away just to touch the pavement with their heads and when they leave they are happier.

According to Titu’s words:

“This close, intimate personal relationship which the individual feels with the saint, and which he somehow believes the saint holds for him, forms one of the most interesting phases in the study of Islam in India and Pakistan. It is a clear indication of the deep personal need which the individual feels for closer contact and fellowship with Allah: and which somehow he belives he can secure through the mediation of the saint who was both a companion (wali) of God on one hand, and a friend and companion of man on the other”.

Either religion comes down to earth, or man rises up, closer to heaven: somehow they meet. And in front of the Dar-ga I finally feel that.

Then, many people just go there and hang around, probably as I do. A number of beggars, homeless, aged and children gather around the tomb. Life is not shut out, it simply flows through just as a river on earth. Life is there and it is so natural to find it there. Someone eats on one side, someone talks on the other, someone else prays. And, among them, I sit there. Every time I reach the corner where I usually sit, I feel so relieved, I feel so safe. I never experienced such a safeness before. And I never want to leave.

I don’t question myself too much about this romance That I have with the tomb: what harm  could grow from love? Then the music stats, the qawwali are sung and the night drops.

On the way home I stop at the book-shop on the corner. I love books. Looking through the titles I feel that all the secrets and mystery of Islam are there, if I only knew on which shelf.

One of the employers of the shop approaches me offering his help. Then he asked me if I am a Muslim. For a moment my heart stokes. I feel so proud that he asked me that. I believe I also blush. With the best smile I can find I say: “No, but I study Urdu language”.

When I leave the shop I am still a little confused.
New Delhi, July 1987

Published on January 26, 2007 at 6:07 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. hello Marta adab
    i learn t from CS about you and your this essay
    its really a great loud thinking …
    I have a lot to say and talk about it
    as already requested can we get in touch to have further more interactions

  2. Salam Matha,
    These saints are the biggest proof of the immortality of love

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