Saturday, October 10, 2009

The pilgrimage to Raymond

When Brahim Karaoui’s mother finally fulfilled a lifelong wish to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, he was nervous. She was elderly, illiterate, and had never been far from the oasis where she was born and raised in the Sahara Desert. In Mecca, a big city that’s far from the Moroccan desert, as many as two million pilgrims a day stream in counterclockwise motion around what’s known as the Kaaba, a two-thousand-year-old shrine, which stands in a broad open area at the center of Islam’s holiest mosque. Important though the pilgrimage is, it’s a scary undertaking for an old lady who’s never been away from home. There’s lots of jostling.

Brahim told me about his mother’s journey on the occasion of our own, entirely different pilgrimage – to Raymond, Mississippi, where the term denotes an annual tourism event focusing on local history. Brahim and I had met in Morocco in 2000, and in the years since had become close friends, traveling together in Europe, Africa and the U.S. It was during one of his visits to Mississippi that we attended the Raymond pilgrimage, which is basically a tour of venerable buildings interspersed with talks about historical events. Brahim is a man of the world and enjoyed this glimpse of local culture, and he was amused to hear the word “pilgrimage” used to describe what is a decidedly casual, sectarian event. Mecca’s pilgrimage has been going on for something like 1,300 years; Raymond’s is only a few decades old.

Last year I returned to the Raymond pilgrimage with another friend, Irem Durdag, who also happens to be Muslim, though she is of the backsliding variety; Irem didn’t even comment on the co-opting of the word. She lives in Istanbul and accompanied me to Raymond because I was scheduled to be speak about my book Mississippi in Africa, in the imposing old courthouse just off the square. Her reason for being in Mississippi was to attend the pig roast that my friends and I put on each year at my house out in the country, even though, like Brahim, she doesn’t eat pork. The pig we cook is really just an excuse for a party. Each year we have lots of vegetarians in the crowd.

As far as I know there were no Muslims at the pig roast this year, though judging from the number of Boca burgers we went through, the ranks of vegetarians are growing. In any event, I returned to the Raymond pilgrimage to speak about my book Sultana, this time accompanied by a small crowd of early arrivals for the four-day-long pig roast weekend, including friends from New York and San Francisco. Instead of Muslims we had Hindus, Christians and Jews, and perhaps a few general nonbelievers, who stood out among a crowd of mostly elderly locals who came to hear about the series of disasters in the long ago and far away which culminated with the sinking of the Sultana. For some of my friends, the history of Raymond – and the local preoccupation with it – was almost as alien as it had been for Brahim and Irem.

I spoke at St. Mark’s Episocopal church, which was used as a field hospital for wounded Union soldiers following a Civil War battle on the outskirts of Raymond. I was told that blood stains are still visible on the church’s floor, though I didn’t see them myself and no one I asked could point them out. Perhaps they have faded away over the years. Still, even talk of blood stains carries a certain power, and whether we saw them or not, there’s little doubt they were once there. Battlefield hospitals during the Civil War were gory places, typically with piles of amputated arms and legs just outside the door. Our experience at St. Mark’s, by contrast, was decidedly sedate, though I tried my best to horrify the crowd.

I told the story of my three guys, how they enlisted in the Union army, endured the violence of the war, and were captured and sent to Confederate prisons, where they survived starvation and disease, after which they were transported to Vicksburg to board the fated Sultana, embarking on what was to be the worst maritime disaster to date in American history. In my version, it’s primarily an extreme survival story. There is no direct connection to Raymond, other than the backdrop of the Civil War and the possibility that some of the soldiers aboard the boat had fought there, but the war is enough of a common denominator there. Pilgrimages are, in one sense, about paying homage to the physical reminders of the past, and when you do that in Mississippi your gaze will inevitably land, eventually, on the terrible spectacle of the Civil War. There’s an entire graveyard in Raymond, for example, devoted to fallen Confederate soldiers. Raymond is today a beautiful little town of lovely old houses with ceiling fans parsing the humid air, and streets overarched by graceful live oak trees, but it was a horrific place for everyone in May of 1863.

After my talk at St. Mark’s, my friends and I joined an orderly procession from the church to the town square, to a reception at the home of Isla Tullos, the mayor. Then we drove out into the countryside to the tiny hamlet of Learned for supper at the Gibbs country store. The next day more out-of-town guests arrived, and the subject of the Sultana faded into the background. But that night, standing in St. Mark’s, thinking of those blood stains on the floor, and of the slave spirituals that would be performed in the church a few days later by a local choir, I found myself wondering what it is that keeps us looking back, and in some cases, undertaking pilgrimages for the express purpose of doing so. For Muslims, it’s a religious requirement to visit the site of Islam’s origins, if you’re able. It’s quite different in Raymond, obviously. But the point of both, I think, is to turn your attention to something momentous that happened long ago, something worth remembering.

I’m not a historian, but I’ve always been fascinated by historic places, including, for some reason, old, abandoned roadbeds. Driving along modern highways in rural Mississippi, I often see the old sunken beds, overgrown with trees, crisscrossing the paved route, and am a little haunted by them. I sometimes follow them on foot through the woods, and come upon long-abandoned intersections, again, grown up in trees. I think the reason I’m attracted to the roads, and to old sites in general, is that they provide evidence of worlds that have passed away, but which were, for a time, The World. Everyone who tramped those roads on foot or horseback or in a buggy or wagon felt that they were living in the one, actual world. Then that world slowly dissolved, and a new one took its place. But there are overlaps, and thinking about how people experienced life in a previous world can be illuminating. Old sites show us that there is continuity, even if the people who populate the entire world inevitably die. We’re living in our one, actual world now, and it will pass away, but there’s something both haunting and reassuring about the idea that there are many worlds, and that all of them seem like the actual one.

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