Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ana fil Damascus!

Hello, friends and family. Today is my fourth day in Damascus. I am still adjusting to life here, still trying to figure out exactly how the city works, but I am doing quite well. I arrived here after spending five blessed days with my old roommate Brian Cassels in Cairo, Egypt. Photos of that week and of my first few days in Damascus are up on Picasa.

Last night, I went to meet an American friend who lives with his wife and little boy in the Old City. Since it had been three days since I had talked fluent English in person with anyone, I was eager to spend some time with them. We met at the Roman Arch, a two-story arch that juts into the Street called Straight (the street the Apostle Paul stayed on during his period of Christ-induced blindness). The Arch must have been much taller when it was originally built, but thousands of years of dust, construction and destruction have left the original Old City, and much of the Arch, below the ground. The Street called Straight is one of the widest streets in the Old City, which is to say, it is wide enough to allow for one-way traffic and some parking on the curb.

My friend greets me in beautiful American-English, and we exit the expansive street into the dark, winding alleyways of the Old City. We are surrounded on all sides by two and three-story apartment buildings that seem to flow into each other like a giant organism; we cannot see more than a hundred feet in any direction. After a few minutes’ walk, my friend stops at a random metal door in a wall, and says, “Here we are.”

His second-story flat is very nice, but the architecture of it all bewilders me. He shares an oddly-placed veranda with his oddly-placed neighbor, whose flat seems to form an L (or some Arabic letter) around my friend’s flat. There is a hookah shop just below my friend’s flat, recently converted from a cafĂ©. His wife worries that the second-hand smoke from the shop will flow into their young son’s room. They briefly discuss enlisting some of the neighbors to jury-rig a new chimney for the shop.

The night before, I had tried to explain to my Syrian Christian friend George why there are no buses where I live. This is why: in West Des Moines, everyone has a house, everyone has a car. In the Old City (and, I suspect, most of Damascus), people literally live on top of each other, or above and to the right of each other, or diagonally, or any other combination possible in three dimensions. I suspect there’s very little room for garages.

“Want to see the roof?” he says to me. Of course I do. We walk through his bedroom, onto a seemingly-purposeless annex that connects to his neighbor’s living room, walk through a ramshackle door onto the lower roof, and then shimmy up his neighbor’s wall onto the higher roof. (Confused yet?) From there, we can see the whole Old City, and much much more.

“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, both now and forever more,” the Psalmist wrote. If God had chosen Syria as the Promised Land, the Psalmist might have said the same thing about Damascus. From my friend’s roof, Mount Qassion seems surreally close, and thousands of multi-colored lights from the slums built into the mountain’s side light it up like a Christmas tree.

To the southwest of Mount Qassion, my friend tells me, we could see the mountains of the Syrian Heights if it were daytime. (The Syrian Heights have been occupied by Israel ever since the 1967 war. Israel and Syria are still technically in a state of war today.) Below Mount Qassion is Melki, where the President lives. To the northwest, my friend points out two isolated clumps of light. Right in between those clumps, he tells me, is Maluula, one of the three villages left in the world where people speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

From the roof, we search for the moon, but don’t find it. Our search is pertinent to the entire Muslim world, including the non-Muslims who live in it. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and this is the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting. If a full moon (or a new moon – we’re not sure) appears tonight, Ramadan will be over, and tomorrow will mark the beginning of the Eid al-Fitr, a weeklong celebration of feasting and prayer. But in any case, the official moon sighting, and the final decision, has to be made in Saudi Arabia.

As it turns out, the feast won’t start until September 10 – tomorrow, as I write this. The feast also means that the boys I will be tutoring will not arrive at the seminary until the 19th. I’m trying to use this time to prepare as best I can – learn how to get around Damascus, study Arabic, learn how to work the laundry machine, study Arabic, buy a cell phone, enroll in an Arabic class, study Arabic. I am living with Christians in a Christian part of town, but I hope to experience some of the Feast. Damascus is not nearly as chaotic as Cairo, but it should still be interesting.

There’s more to say, but I think this is enough for one post. I would appreciate your prayers during this time as I try to get used to living in this completely foreign city, amongst people who do not speak my language. I am very excited to be here, and getting more excited as I learn more about this place, but there is definitely an adjustment process to go through.

I hope this post finds you all well. If you know about this blog, there’s a good chance that I love you dearly and wish you could be here with me. Go with peace, my friends.

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