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Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

Couple connects Mideast dots

Activism for Iraq leads to Syria


When Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck left their apartment in New York’s Harlem neighborhood last August to live in Syria, friends and family of the married couple were not shocked. The two had visited Iraq four times between 1999 and 2003 with anti-sanctions campaigners Voices in the Wilderness. They spent three Christmases with the Chaldean Christian community in Basra, Iraq’s southern port city.

In a letter written just before their departure for Damascus, they explained the decision to loved ones and connected the Iraq-Syria dots.

“Many of us who had the experience of traveling in Iraq during the time of the sanctions have made attempts to learn some Arabic,” they wrote. “We realize how limiting it is to converse only with Iraqis who know English or to work through translators. But it has been difficult for us to get beyond the tourist level of language learning. We want to try. Learning a new language may be harder at our ages, but there’s also a big plus to being this age: One of us gets a Social Security check each month and that is adequate (almost) for board and room and tuition!

“It is so clear that people of the U.S. need to have knowledge of the Arabs, of Islam. Even if the language proves too much for us, we will learn something of the people. And we will have the privilege to experience more of the culture of the Middle East: the music, the streets, the markets, the mosques and churches. And we will share this as best we can.”

Huck, 65, was director of Liturgy Training Publications for 24 years and is editor and author of various books and articles on the renewal of the liturgy. Kubasak, 55, has taught the early grades in public schools for 30 years, winning numerous awards and mentoring new teachers.

“Both of us did our work well,” they wrote in their letter, “but these are hard times in both areas. We don’t have what it takes right now to struggle against the current thinking and the use of power in church and education. We are taking a break.”

On their “break,” Kubasak and Huck are keeping a rigorous schedule of Arabic study in Damascus, working with a private tutor. They live in a tiny room on the roof of a family’s home. In an e-mail to NCR, Huck described their dwelling:

“We live in an ‘upper room,’ one of four free-standing rooms built on the roof of a family’s home. This is a typical Arab-style house located in the eastern part of the Old City. We enter the family’s house off a very narrow lane where a car can barely pass a person pressed against the wall. Walking these lanes one house’s walls -- and the occasional door -- blend into another and from these narrow streets there is no sense of how the puzzle of homes and little stores and workshops has been put together. We come home to one of these doors and enter, not to the ‘inside,’ but to the courtyard near the ground-floor enclosure where the family lives (mom, dad, grandmother, a son in high school and a daughter in college). We go up an outside flight of stairs to the roof with its four rooms and balcony area surrounding the courtyard below. A lemon tree, grapevines and fragrant jasmine all climb up to this level from the ground below. We get wonderful sunshine up here. The kitchen we renters share is somewhat like those in summer cabins: hand-me-downs of pots and pans, plates and cups, tableware, a ragtag assortment of stuff. The winding lanes of the Old City have their occasional cars, but they are mostly for people on their way to the tiny bakeries and corner stores, for children playing, for sellers with bicycles or carts calling out anything from just-picked oranges to canisters of fuel for cooking. Our room is a two-minute walk from the ‘street called straight’ where Ananias found Saul/Paul and healed him of his blindness and baptized him. That was only about 1,950 years ago, fairly recent by Damascus standards.”

Kubasak and Huck have been sending letters from Damascus by e-mail to friends, family and fellow activists since their arrival. They have graciously given NCR permission to cull through their letters and share some of the observations and experiences of their first months there.

In another e-mail to NCR, Kubasak and Huck wonder if they have said enough. “Because of our beginner status in language our contacts are so limited. Do we really say enough about Syrians? And how do they come across? This is not some effort to cover all the bases, to say everything essential about Syria. Rather, recognizing how the U.S. (and not only the U.S.) has a history of demonizing and distorting, and how some of this has been happening in the snarls the U.S. makes at Syria (and in the U.S. money now being spent to support regime change), it is important to see the human reality of this nation.”

The two hope to stay at least until the summer of 2007, with two months this summer back in the United States.

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

For further reading

The following is Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck’s recommended reading list on Syria and the Middle East.

On Damascus: Damascus: A History by Ross Burns. A recent book by a former Australian ambassador to Syria. A loving biography of a very old city.

On growing up in Damascus: Daughter of Damascus by Siham Tergeman, translated from Arabic by Andrea Rugh. Published by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin. Growing up in the old city during the last half of the 20th century.

On Andalus: Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal. The leader who started it all in the eighth century was a refugee from Damascus.

On Syria’s recent history: Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Seale, and The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria by David W. Lesch. Seale’s book was published in the mid-1980s, Lesch’s in 2005.

On recent events in Syria: Syria Comment, a blog by Joshua M. Landis, assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies in the School of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Landis has lived in Damascus.

On Islam: Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World by Carl W. Ernst. An excellent introduction to the history and reality of Islam.

On teaching about the Arab world: The Arab World Studies Notebook edited by Audrey Shabbas. An excellent resource for teachers in elementary, junior high and secondary schools. Available through the Web site of Arab World and Islamic Resources at

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

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