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Good Letters

On “Rapture Saturday,” I crossed old town Nicosia’s Green Line to wander the Turkish side of this divided city: a shabbier copy of its Cypriot twin, boasting a similar rabbit warren of half-shuttered shops but a higher density of dumpsters and fake leather goods, and so more potent wafts of these sharp perfumes.

The wares were dull and the sun was hot, so I quickly examined the quarter-mile of worthy curiosities and then wound my way to Selimiye Mosque and its generous, shady flank.

I stumbled out of my shoes and into its white cavern with a flock of beet-red German tourists, all six feet tall and towering over the mustachioed man who begged the ladies, in broken English, to cover their heads. I drew my scarf over my hair and shoulders and cut away from the crowd.

Selimiye Mosque is a conquered French Gothic cathedral, known in centuries past as the Lusignan Church of Hagia Sophia and the place where Cypriot kings were crowned.

Rapture Saturday was my second visit; I had ducked in briefly one previous evening, disoriented even in the dimness of sundown by the rolling, empty expanse of prayer rugs, the broken gaze of defaced marble saints, and stained glass windows emptied out and stuccoed over with cloudy blue and yellow tiles. There was an apse but no altar, and a gluey whitewash masked all the columns and towering walls so that it felt as if I walked into the heart of a half-melted candle.

It struck me as sad that first night, and perhaps more so in Rapture Saturday’s brightness: a church masquerading as a mosque, a reminder of the enmity on all sides of Abraham’s family.

Somehow a reminder, too, of my whole family broken in our sudden succession of divorces, of everything upended so that nothing—no ties, no history, no time—washed me up in the accident of this strange place on a day when the world might end.

I decided to wait out the Rapture—or at least the hottest hour of the day—in the cool of the mosque. I walked further in and sat down on the prayer rug to watch the Germans wander. They filed briskly and blankly past the nearby whiteboard, which proclaimed a brokenly translated Koranic scripture for the day:

When the earth quakes with a violent quaking destined for it;

And the earth yields up its burdens;
And human cries out, “What is the matter with it?”
On that day, it will recount all its tidings.
As your Lord God has inspired it to do so.
On that day, all humans will come forth in their different companies, to be shown their deeds.
And so, whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it;
And whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.

There had been no joking that week among my Middle Eastern, Antipodean, and Latin American co-workers about the imminent Judgment Day. I had finally asked an Aussie colleague if she knew about Saturday’s Rapture, and she had laughed, amused and oblivious, and I was surprised to find that only some Americans thought the world was about to end.

But apparently the Facebook meme jumped continents and joined forces with the Turkish Muslims responsible for the Selimiye whiteboard. Or a viciously well-educated missionary had hijacked it. Or maybe it was one of those odd coincidences of world prayer books, a divine joke for everyone Abraham loves.

However it arrived, the verse was strange, and so it was funny: out of place and out of the way, apparently unnoted by anyone else wandering the cavernous mosque with me on Rapture Saturday.

It felt like a proverb placed to make me laugh—even in its gruff, grave tone, and even as I acknowledged that the world of my family is truly ending in quakings and tidings, in proclamations of the good and evil I have done, and dwindling to this quiet, lonesome broken everything, where there is nothing left but the space and silence of God’s embrace.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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