Cover story -- Syria
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Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

The Damascus diary


Nov. 1, 2005
October slipped away in a stretch of 10 consecutive days of class. Now our recess is here, four or five days for Eid, the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan. Ramadan ends tonight or tomorrow night, whenever the new moon is first seen in this region right after sunset. A few days ago there was a major festival, celebrated by the chanting of the entire Quran, starting after sunset, and ending around midnight. It was amplified from some of the mosques. The coming of Eid had been in the air for days as people buy gifts and prepare to go to visit family.

The end of Ramadan means the daylight fasting that so many adults do, from food and from liquids and of course from smoking too, will be ending. Many special foods have been around this month and now there are stacks of branches in some of the markets; families take these to the cemetery on the first day of Eid, which this year nearly coincides with All Saints/All Souls and Día de los Muertos with all its cemetery associations for Christians.

The weather is changing. We’ve had two overcast days and a tiny bit of rain -- and now when the sun goes down, at about 5 p.m., it can get quite cool. In the mornings we’re thankful when the sun reaches our room and we throw open the wide door to let it in.

We hope these next days to keep our six hours a day of study (so much to get what often seems so little into the head), but we’ll also take time to catch up on seeing more of the city.

Nov. 13
One of the real joys of our Arabic study here is Alexander, 4 months old, the only child of our teacher, Hussein, and his wife, Yisra.

They live in three tiny rooms on the second floor of a narrow three-story building on a winding path through a maze of such buildings on the lower levels of the mountain on the northwest side of Damascus (the last mountain before the desert). The room where we have class is the middle room and by far the largest -- but with a desk, table, couch and three folding chairs it has only a few square feet to move around in. This space is occupied by one student after another -- two, three or four hours each -- from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., with maybe one day off a week.

Alexander arrived about two months before we did. Part of being in his home for two hours a day is the chance to play with him and hold him. He has a wonderful disposition. Sometimes one of us holds him for a good part of the class.

We’re there from 3 to 5 each afternoon. Now it’s dark at 5 and there’s a whole new feel to these narrow up-and-down, crisscrossing lanes on the mountainside. (A story of Muhammad says the Prophet once stood on this mountain -- Jebel Kassyun -- and looked over the city and its trees and gardens but did not enter because he wanted Paradise only when he died. And we are told there are many Quranic and other stories from early Islam that put various biblical events here on this mountain: Cain killing Abel, the birth of Abraham, Mary fleeing with Jesus.) The evening star (probably Venus now) shines bright in the west, and in the east maybe Jupiter?

Later at night from our rooftop room we can see Orion and other constellations. But no Milky Way -- there’s usually a blanket of smog here.

* * *

With the help of Antoinette, the college-age daughter in the house we’re living in, we’ve been learning the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic by listening to a tape she made for us and reading along in a book we picked up at church. Slowly we are reciting the beautiful multisyllabic words, like malakutaka and mashiatuka, and hoping we can keep up with the people at the church when they pray during the liturgy. So far we’re successful with about two-and-a-half lines.

Today at church the power went out. Amber light from several tall candles along the altar and many smaller candles around the assembly at various icons made a lovely environment. The scent of rose water during the procession of the Gospel book filled the air. A few folks, from children to grandparents, gathered at the ambo and kissed the Gospel book or touched it reverently before it was opened. We listen to people singing around us. We imitate the tones and mouth some syllables, hoping someday we can join in more fully.

* * *

How many different ways are there to carry bread? We have witnessed people carrying the round, flat Damascene bread -- about the size of a large pizza -- in stacks on their heads. The stacks of bread resemble giant pancakes. Old men, young guys, cool-looking teenagers, small kids and grandmothers all can be spotted walking home with bread on their heads, all of them having visited one of the many little bakeries scattered throughout every neighborhood. Sometimes it balances on a hat or kaffiyeh, other times on the bare head. We’ve seen a motorcycle whiz by with a stack of bread on the back, and this morning a bicycle sped past with the front basket full of bread. One cold morning I put our three-piece stack, hot from the oven and without a bag, right in my sweater against my body to keep me toasty. It was still warm when I ran upstairs into the kitchen, ready to slather on some local apricot jam.

There is new meaning to “Give us this day our daily bread.”

* * *

What’s new in the souk? The red beets have come in -- the turnips, chestnuts and some new varieties of olives, too. Fortunately, the luscious pomegranates are still piled up. They make excellent juice in the morning or provide rich seeds to munch on after meals.

The Friday souk is a frantically busy outdoor market with fish flopping in bins, loads of colorful autumn vegetables for sale, piles of mint, greens and purslane, tiny hardware shops, cheese stores, bustling bakeries and more. Objects suspend overhead: items for sale or lights or banners. Below the feet are thick cobblestones or uneven pavement. It gets narrow in some spots. As we weave our way to class we often have difficulty getting past a small vehicle or young children with their mothers stopping to evaluate some product or produce.

Amid all this activity we noticed some people moving aside and glancing back into the narrowest part of the souk, taking on a respectful quietness. As we turned back to look we saw a satin-draped wooden coffin being carried by several men above their shoulders, followed by a large group of mourners. It was right in the middle of the thickest afternoon shopping, yet the procession moved through the throng reciting prayers as they walked through the souk toward the cemetery.

* * *

A friend from New York is here for a few days. He has worked for years in projects related to the Middle East, especially in getting person-to-person or church-to-church relationships established. We talked about the present U.S.-Syria situation, the threats that Bush now makes on a regular basis. At the United Nations, the United States wants sanctions against Syria. The classroom bully is at it again.

Nov. 27
We did it! We lit the heater. We had some fairly cold evenings, but we were reluctant to try. We were worried about the smell from the burning kerosene in the little tank attached to the heater. We got it going and within 20 minutes we were opening windows and taking off sweaters.

* * *

It’s already Advent, the most poetic and challenging of the church seasons. The air was so clear as Saturday evening came and the evening star was brighter than ever. I don’t know who of you might know and love what I think of as Advent’s central text: “Conditor alme siderum -- Creator of the stars of night,” but it is the very sound of this season both in its text and the chant melody. We sang that and welcomed in these short days.

On our morning walk today we headed outside the city wall to a nearby park looking for some materials to make our Advent wreath. The eucalyptus and myrtle there are evocative of the green trees portrayed in tile on the Umayyad Mosque, especially intertwined with jasmine from our rooftop garden and olive branches from the boulevard we walked.

Dec. 2
While teaching in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of expensive old brick homes, I taught an 8-year-old girl, Casey, who was not allowed by her family to walk three blocks to school for fear of abduction or crime. I wish I could transport her to Damascus where children roam freely and stroll fearlessly any time of the day or night!

When I see a little girl walking toward us by herself I say, “Look Gabe -- there’s Casey!” as a confident and bright-eyed young child passes us wearing her backpack, her dark hair in long braids. Or we see her amble alone through the souk, handling colorful pens and doodads for sale. “There she is!” I whisper, noting her ability to move freely without fear in this setting.

Or we see her skipping downhill past the flower shop with the maroon mums set out in buckets, or striding down the narrow lane near the tailors busy at their machines, or marching in new running shoes with an imaginary friend, or hiking uphill in front of tall apartment buildings with flapping laundry on lines.

Sometimes we see Casey carrying a hot pan of roasted eggplant baked at the local “firn” (oven), the name for bread bakeries here -- a sort of communal oven for people who don’t have one at home.

Casey moves unafraid at any time, jumping over hopscotch numbers at night or pursuing a frail kitten in the dark. Casey is free to be alone in this town. It is a wonderful thing. Sometimes Casey wears a scarf or hijab just like her mom and other times her hair flashes pigtails with pink barrettes holding her bangs. Dresses, skirts, jeans, corduroys -- Casey has a vast wardrobe! Every day we see her in some manifestation and we never cease to admire her independence.

The kids here love to try out their English on us, calling out portions of dialogues (Hello! How are you? What is your name?) or trying phrases their teachers have rehearsed with them (Good morning, boys and girls!). Meanwhile, we’re trying out our dialogues on them and using the phrases our teacher has rehearsed with us. Children are the easiest to talk to and both sides are delighted when our phrases work.

* * *

We have finished the first part of the course and taken our exam. Now we begin the part where we listen to recordings of a Syrian radio drama. It is the language as people speak it. We will be dealing with little chunks of it at a time, trying to learn to hear as well as read. However much we learn, it still seems such a leap to listening and understanding, then to speaking. But we have time.

Dec. 11
At St. Therese Chaldean Church today, after the final blessing and dismissal, Gabe and I were lingering in the pew when a woman came over and greeted me with an exuberant hello and three kisses on my cheeks. “Do you remember me? You were at my church in Iraq! You took my picture in Basra after Midnight Mass. I still have my picture of you and me at our church!” As she embraced me I began to cry, thinking of all the suffering during the years of the sanctions and now the occupation and remembering the years when we traveled to Iraq and joined the Christian community in Basra (three Christmases we were there).

Judging by the size of the assembly today, there were many other Iraqi refugees at Mass. Every pew was filled, folding chairs covered every inch of floor space, and during Communion a procession of people flowed in from the courtyard outside. We know from U.N. statistics that Syria has accepted over half a million Iraqis fleeing from the violence and disorder brought on by the American invasion.

* * *

James Taylor sang: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” One beautiful way to mark the time has been adding to our Advent wreath each week. Today we began the third week by enhancing our wreath with small branches from orange trees. The dark leaves contrast with gray eucalyptus boughs and light green myrtle. The orange leaves are stronger than the delicate jasmine that peeks from under last week’s oleander.

-- Viktor Hegyi

Christmas on the streets of Damascus

Dec. 19
The Gospel at the Chaldean church today was the genealogy from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 1 -- all those hard to pronounce names of Jesus’ ancestors. It was so beautifully proclaimed in a language that is a not so distant relative of the languages those ancestors spoke. The crowded church (on a Sunday morning, a workday here in Syria) was filled for two hours with the chanting of the ministers and the assembly in tones that are surely related to the chanting we hear daily from the Quran, but perhaps even more ancient. You would be amazed to hear the rhythms and pitches of this chanting, some in Arabic and some in the ancient language sometimes called Aramaic, sometimes Chaldean, sometimes Assyrian.

Dec. 26
OK, for those of you in church on Christmas, here is a one-question quiz. You remember the Gospel reading that begins: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.” The question: What country is named in the very next line of the story? Hint: It’s a country that still exists 2,000-plus years later.

You got it! Syria! Right here under our feet in Damascus. The line you heard in church was: “This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” And it continues: “So each went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth.” Why does Luke bother to mention Syria by name? Because that’s the bigger entity that encompassed Palestine and what is now Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and more. When this city was half as old as it is now and the Romans were the occupying power, Mary and Joseph headed out to Bethlehem.

At the church on Christmas Eve, the liturgy was to begin at 9 p.m. We knew it would be crowded so we got there early. The church seats maybe 300. By 9 p.m. there was barely enough standing room to squeeze into.

The first hour was the chanting, unaccompanied, in the old Syriac language. After that the liturgy of the Eucharist in the Chaldean rite, also sung throughout, much of it sung by all present. (No one has a book or paper; they know it by heart.) About midnight, at Communion, the priest said that because the room was so full, people would have to go from Communion out the doors behind the altar. There was no other way to move. Outside it was apparent that more people had never gotten into the church but had been out there the whole time.

As we walked home early on Christmas morning, liturgies that had begun at 11 p.m. or midnight were continuing in the Syrian and Greek and Roman churches in the neighborhood.

Church bells rang that night and through Christmas day, but the surprise sound was that of marching bands. Christmas in the churches here continues for three days and returns with the octave (New Year’s weekend). Many of the churches have morning liturgies on Dec. 26 and 27.

On Christmas day, at about noon, we took a walk to get tomatoes and onions. We were home cooking a lot. (We had six guests for dinner, young students from here and there we have gotten to know.) When we walked by the Greek Orthodox church half a dozen cars pulled up. They were filled with Muslim imams and sheiks from the mosques, all wearing their beautiful vesture. The Greek bishop was on the steps of the church to greet them with the traditional Middle Eastern kiss and invite them in. Perhaps this is a small thing, but it says something people need to know about the centuries-old relationships between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.

Around our small study table for Christmas dinner we were four Americans, one Syrian, two Germans, and two Hungarians. We made hummus (we do every week now), and we also prepared a great soup and our new favorite pasta dish. We had loads of sweets for dessert including large dates from which two of the guests had removed the pits and inserted walnuts, and a huge bowl of beautiful jewel-like pomegranate seeds. We ate and talked and then Theresa got the guitar and we had singing.

A few nights before, we were with thousands of people at a park nearby for a concert by Christian and Muslim choirs -- very Western in a way, big signs saying the event was paid for by Nescafe (Nestle) and Santa made an appearance. But it was so lovely to be with all those people, and so many children, just strolling and listening and visiting on a December night.

-- Viktor Hegyi

Celebrating Eid al-Adha, the return from the Hajj

Jan. 14, 2006
This week has seen the arrival of one of the great festivals of Islam, one associated with the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. One reason for Damascus’ growth in certain periods was the way that one great stream of the pilgrimage began here with people who came to Damascus to commence the journey through the often dangerous desert wilderness to Mecca. The festival (or Eid) is associated with the story from the Quran of Abraham and his oldest son, Ishmael. The story is much like the one our Bible tells of Abraham and the (near) sacrifice of Isaac. The days before the Eid are hectic here as people made preparations, then very quiet once the Eid began.

We’ve had no classes this week because our teacher and his family went to their village to celebrate the Eid. So we’ve been studying each day, trying to grasp the stuff that has sped by us -- lots of listening to the radio drama over and over.

Theresa’s daughter, Annie, and my niece, Emily, have both written requesting some thoughts and information from us on the subject of sanctions against Middle Eastern countries. It’s a big subject with us. The idea of sanctions (embargo) against a country isn’t new at all. In our lives we have seen certain sanctions used well against South Africa to help bring an end to apartheid. But these sanctions were implemented by various countries against South Africa at the request of the representatives of the black population of that country. And those sanctions were never a blunt instrument aimed at punishing the whole population. To some people, sanctions seem an alternative to war; a way for the world to make changes for the better in nations where much of the population is oppressed.

Sanctions can do good (for example, prohibitions on selling arms of any kind) if they are applied with great care as they often were against the apartheid government of South Africa. Or they can devastate families in every part of a society, people just like us. (In the case of Iraq, we now know that the “reason” for the sanctions -- WMD -- was always a lie.)

As the United States now talks about harsh sanctions -- again using the United Nations as they did in the case of Iraq sanctions -- against Syria or Iran we have to learn the truth about the effects of such sanctions.

Feb. 3
Bicycles here draw our attention because of the many ways they’re used. We’ve seen “car wash” bicycles with two huge rectangular plastic tubs affixed on the back: one red for soapy water, one white for clean rinse water. A bucket dangles on the side holding sponges and rags balanced on the opposite side with a pail for the dirty rags. The car wash biker moves easily in town, finding folks eager to have their cars washed on the spot. There are also bikes with bins on the back filled with tools to fix flat tires and with jumper cables peeping out. Another bike is a full service tea/coffee shop. This careful cyclist has mounted fire encased in a recycled olive oil can! Over the fire sits a wire rack with a shiny silver teapot. Woven wool saddlebags hold tea bags (regular or herbal), Nescafe and a plastic jar of powdered creamer. A hook off to the side grasps a long tube of plastic cups and a container of sugar. Two thermoses of freshly brewed coffee are firmly attached to the back of the fire can. Near the bike seat is a swing-out cutting board with bread, cheese and sometimes jam. This bike is often parked where we get on the minibus on our way to class and is definitely our favorite.

* * *

Recently we witnessed an old woman on our street lowering a basket from her second floor window. Faddeh, the man from whom we buy our greens, was below to grab the basket, take out the money and replace it with a few heads of romaine, floppy chard and a few bunches of green onions. Up went her salad!

-- Deutsch Presse Agentur/Oliver Berg

A street in the Christian quarter of downtown Damascus

Feb. 10
Weather report: Most rain since we got here -- water flowing in the canals. But maybe you have been reading about the hot side of this city the last few days, the fires that destroyed the Danish embassy and did damage to one or two others (during protests against the now-infamous cartoons depicting and in some cases demeaning the Prophet Muhammad).

We’ve been very aware of this as the whole embassy neighborhood is just beyond where we get off the minibus to go to class each day. We haven’t experienced any bit of difference in people’s attitudes (nearly always kind and welcoming), nor have we met any foreigners who have.

The anger is about the demeaning and insulting message of these cartoons and that a double standard seems to exist that says one can say (and draw and sing, etc.) things about Muslims that one cannot (or will not) do about other groups. We saw one Jordanian cartoon of an editor passing judgment on three cartoon frames. The first is a caricature of a black person. The editor rejects it: “Racist!” The second is a caricature of a Jew. The editor rejects it: “Anti-Semitic!” The third is a caricature of a Muslim. The editor accepts it: “Freedom of speech!”

The cartoons have simply made visible what people feel more and more from the West: A lack of respect for the religion, for the culture, for the history and a lack of knowledge -- few in the West take the trouble to learn about Islam, about Arab culture and its contributions. People here know our story far better than we know theirs.

* * *

We heard that on Wednesday nights the American Cultural Center (which we had never visited) was observing Black History Month with Spike Lee’s movie “Malcolm X” and then “Hotel Rwanda.”

“Malcolm X” was first. In the rain, we found the place, got all inspected and joined a full room of maybe 100 people for the film. For people here (most of the audience that night seemed to be Syrians) the scenes of Malcolm on pilgrimage first to Egypt and then to Mecca, making the Haj, were probably especially powerful with the deep change it brought in his life and thinking. We were happy to see our New York neighborhoods, especially Harlem. Unfortunately, when it ended the staff there had no provision for discussion and people just left. Friends who have visited the various “cultural centers” sponsored by other countries rate the U.S. center very low -- not much goes on, not friendly. The British center seems to be outstanding, also the Spanish center, and of course the French -- libraries, art exhibits, lectures, films, classes.

Feb. 19
Yesterday we spent hours at the Damascus National Museum. It has beautiful grounds filled with the stones that have been carved by dozens of civilizations over 4,000-plus years.

Part of this museum is the Dura Europos synagogue. Dura Europos was a town on the Euphrates River (in what is now Syria) from the third century B.C.E. until the third century C.E. It knew many peoples in those years. About a century after Jesus lived, there were both Jewish and Christian communities in this town -- minorities for sure among the Roman, Persian and Greek polytheists. One hundred years later the town was destroyed and vanished from memory until the 1920s when it was found buried in the sands. Among the well-preserved buildings (because of the dryness and the sand) were a home that had become a place for Christians to assemble for liturgy on Sunday, and another that had been made into a synagogue. These are among the oldest places of Christian and Jewish worship that have been discovered anywhere. The synagogue was moved, piece by piece, to this Damascus museum and reassembled.

Feb. 25
The Arabic name for Lent with all the Christians here is “the great fast” and we have been trying to learn how it is observed. One practice seems to be that nothing is eaten between midnight and noon on the days of Lent. It seems to be no meat and no dairy is eaten at all during Lent. The meat part of that might not be too big a change for people here as meat is expensive; people eat meat often but in small amounts. Milk and cheese are inexpensive and sold everywhere; variations on yogurt used both by itself and in cooking seem like the main dairy people have.

March 12
We did not know until we went to the Internet last night that Tom Fox of Christian Peacemaker Teams had been found dead in Baghdad. Tom was one of the four hostages taken in late November, the only one of them we knew. He had visited here briefly in October. A month later he was taken hostage. Tom was in his mid-50s and ironically much of his working life was in the Marine Corps, playing clarinet in the Marine Band.

* * *

One of our friends here with whom we sometimes practice our Arabic is about 60 and has lived here all his life. He has a little shop in the souk near the Great Mosque. It’s one small room, but he has wonderful fabric, mosaic woodwork pieces and metalwork. For a long time he was a manager in one of the Old City workshops where hundreds of craftspeople made these kinds of objects (Muslims specializing in weaving, Christians in woodwork, Jews in metalwork). As a young man he studied at the Franciscan seminary in Jerusalem. Papa Joseph (as he calls his shop and himself) speaks some English and evidently even more Italian and French, in addition to his native Arabic. When we need to give or send a gift, we go to him.

* * *

-- Viktor Hegyi

The spice souk. One empire after another, Syria has been at the crossroads of trade, a nation of merchants.

We were able to pick up from the Sunday liturgy that something was happening at our Chaldean church on the Fridays of Lent, so we went there at 5 p.m. It was crowded like midnight Mass on Christmas! Maybe 500 people inside and others outside. They celebrated the Stations of the Cross, and then Mass. It was two-plus hours in all. Perhaps in part the church here as in other places and times is where refugees (Iraqis in this case) are able to come together away from home, and these stations (like the liturgy itself) were something they joined in with good singing throughout. The people are such a great range of ages. Not so many young children, but loads of older teens and young adults. What is so amazing is how much of their liturgy they are singing and with great devotion and attention. Older people will even be singing along softly on the parts sung by the priest or deacons.

March 26
Two nights ago Theresa had a conversation with a young man who helps his father in their tiny grocery store on the corner. He likes to practice his English and he had lots of questions about New York. Clearly movies and the TV show “Friends” are big influences. Where do we park our car? (Don’t have one.) Do we take taxis all the time? (Hardly ever.) Are we in Times Square often? (Not if we can avoid it.) Are all the stores big and flashy? For that last one Theresa said that the grocery on our corner is just the size of his tiny shop and is run by young men from Yemen and Egypt. Next to it is the space of a woman from Nigeria (we think) who sells socks mostly; her space is half as big. Up and down Broadway by us are stores (food, phones, shoes), mostly without big names.

We need to think about how we get and give ideas/images to others. We could smile at how this young man thinks about the United States -- but when technology can take images and information in both directions, why are we Americans carrying around so many distortions and lies?

Young people like our friend know very well the havoc the United States has caused in Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere. But at the same time they will wear Nike T-shirts and such -- and maybe think about how they’d rather be in New York than Damascus. Syria has a very young population. (According to the United Nations, almost 40 percent of the Syrian population is under 15.) What are these young people going to do?

* * *

This morning (Sunday) at the Chaldean church the first reading was from Genesis: the story of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael (Genesis 16), a story never told on a Sunday in the Roman church. We also heard John’s Gospel: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” and “I am the light of the world.”

We never turn off a habit of being critical of what’s wrong with liturgical practices, but this liturgy, crowded with Iraqis far from home, often comes close to doing it right. This is heard and it is seen. It is seen in the attention of people, their postures in this crowded room, their faces. It is heard in the rhythms of back-and-forth between the people and the presider and the deacons, all in chant of various shapes and intensities, and all known by heart. After the Lord’s Prayer, one of the deacons chants to the assembly, calling all to come and to receive and to eat and to drink. Somehow it must sound so welcoming to these people, most of them new here in Damascus, fleeing the chaos brought on by the U.S. invasion and occupation of their country, not knowing what is next.

The presence of these Christians, in Iraq and in Syria, still comes as news to so many in the United States. But their churches and some elements of their chant and their liturgy were already a generation old when Peter and Paul got to Rome. Under the West’s growing dominance in recent centuries they’ve had a sort of distant cousin role. What a sadness.

* * *

We are working out plans to come home for the summer. We should get to New York June 21.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

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