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This review is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

SHORT NOTES MARIUS KOCIEJOWSKI, The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool (Sutton Publishing) £20

Readers of Marius Kociejowski's frequent essays in PNR now have the opportunity to read an extended essay in the same mode. His book is built round his visits to Syria, in particular Damascus, although there are significant trips to, among other places, Antioch, Aleppo, the monastery of Deir Mar Musa and the sites of Abraham's birthplace and the slaying of Abel by Cain. The main characters in the book are Kociejowski's friends, 'Abed' the unemployable Street Philosopher and the Sufi mystic, later alchemist, 'Sulayman'. Other characters include a congenital self-inventor who claims to have been befriended by Montgomery of Alamein or Adolf Hitler, depending on his audience, a heterodox Jesuit, a Sufi who feeds the insane and teaches in parables, another who teaches through practical jokes and a housewife, who happens to be a stigmatic and whose wounds weep pure olive oil.

Woven into his narrative are accounts of the intricate religious history and present religious realities of Syria. Occasionally events such as the death of Syria's great twentieth-century poet, Nizar al Qabbani, break in, but the centre of the book is an exploration of religious sensibility, not so much in the devotional practice of religious professionals, but through seemingly ordinary people, who are irrationally inspired or afflicted by religion. Figures from religious tradition, such as the real Saint Simon Stylites, a Syrian saint, and the mysterious, mythical Khidr, the Muslim equivalent of Saint George or the prophet Elijah, still have a vital presence in Syria ...


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