“Not long ago, in Damascus, I lived for a few days on muezzin time: long, silent mornings in the Old City before dawn, walking through labyrinths of dead-end alleyways, in and out around the great mosque, and then long, hot days in my room, sleeping as if I were in my bed in California. Then up again in the dark, the only decoration in my room a little red arrow on the wall to show which direction Mecca was.
Photo Ryan McGinley
I went on like this for a while — watching the light come up in the mosque, seeing the city resolve itself into its shapes in the first hours of morning and then disappearing myself, down into a well — and then, after a few days, something snapped: at night, by day, I could not sleep. I stayed up all the way through a night and the next day couldn’t sleep. I drew the curtains, got into pajamas, buried myself inside the sheets. But my mind was alive now, or at least moving as with a phantom limb. Soon it was dark again, my time to wake up, and at last, at 2 a.m. or so, reconciled to my sleeplessness, I picked up an old copy of ”Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and began to read.
From outside, in the fourth-floor corridor, the sound of a door being opened, then closing. Furtive rustles, a circle of whispers. The thump of a party, forbidden booze, female laughter. The ping of the elevator as it came and opened its doors; the sound of the doors closing again, the machine going up again and down. Sometimes I went to the window and, drawing the curtains, saw minarets bathed in green light, the only tall monuments visible across the sleeping city. Once, putting away the story of Dr. Thompson and his Samoan, I opened the door to check the corridor, but there was no one there. No footsteps, no figures, no anything.”
Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of ”Sun After Dark: Flights Into the Foreign,” from which this article is adapted. The book will be published next month by Knopf
From The New York Times Magazine