Saturday, October 30, 2010

Look out for the jackal, look out for the wolf

Pictures here.

Yesterday was a classic day in Syria. What could be better than an impulse trip to a holy city with two people you’ve never met before?

I woke up at 9:00 to go to the English-speaking congregation I attend here. This was trickier than it sounds, because the night before was Syria’s time change, and Syrians are even worse about time changes than Americans. I found out about it from an ex-pat at a coffee shop; his Syrian Muslim friend had no idea. As I tried to sleep in the next morning, the church bells were one hour ahead of me. As of this writing, they still haven’t been changed back. In short, I was convinced that I would show up an hour late to church. Thanks be to God, I didn’t.

My church is an international, interdenominational, English-speaking church that meets in the basement of a school in the New City. After the service, I met a British student named Peter who’s studying Arabic at Damascus University. We clicked almost immediately. (Afterward he bought a book at a coffee shop on my recommendation - The Life of Pi – “I know I only met you an hour ago, but I think you would like this book,” I said). After we had talked for a while, the pastor introduced us briefly to an Iraqi man whom I’ll call Tim.  We chatted for a few minutes, then made our way out.

Since we both live in the Old City, Peter and I decided to travel home together. We were walking down the street, trying to find the bus stop, when we ran into Tim again. He was going to Seidnayya for the afternoon. Would we like to come? We would! Microbus away!

According to the non-authoritative Lonely Planet guide, the Crusaders viewed Seidnayya as the holiest place in the Middle East next to Jerusalem. It is a small town in the mountains north of Damascus, and home to some twenty monasteries, though only eight or so are still active. Some of the monasteries predate the birth of Christ by hundreds of years. They were originally pagan temples; Emperor Constantine converted them into monasteries after he converted to Christianity. The biggest and most famous monastery is Our Lady of Seidnayya, which supposedly holds a painting that St. Luke made of the Virgin Mary. At this place, a Christian Roman emperor was out hunting, and was about to shoot the gazelle, when the Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him to build a monastery on the site. (“Seidnayya” is Arabic for “Gazelle Hunter.”)

The contrast between polluted Damascus and the breathtaking blue skies and clean streets in Seidnayya is amazing. The town clings to the side of the mountains like moss. There is a nary a flat street in the town, and any spot you pick offers a spectacular view of the valley below. Its several thousand residents are mostly Christian, but there is one very prominent mosque in the center of town. All in all, Peter, Tim and I visited four monasteries: St. George’s, Our Lady of Seidnayya, St. Thomas’, and the Cherubim Monastery. We also ate hamburgers with eggs.

St. George killed a dragon, and he’s very popular in the Middle East, though I’ve never gotten the full story. He’s also the patron saint of England; as Peter says, “We nicked him.” The monk we met there was very enthusiastic, and showed us a cave at the monastery that was significant for some reason – I think because they found one of St. George’s bones there, and it smelled like perfume. The monk gave us free incense and holy oil there, claiming it would heal us of any sickness if we believed. He instructed us sternly to burn the wrapper the oil came in after we were done, instead of throwing it away, because it was holy. (If you’re wondering, Tim was translating all this for us.) We saw a man there who had come to the cave hoping to be healed of his back problems.

Our Lady of Seidnayya is perched on the top of a rocky cliff, and designed like a European castle. (It’s been expanded and improved on since it was first built by the Romans.) St. Luke’s painting of Mary is kept deep inside the monastery, in a dark room inside a silver safe built into the wall, so I can’t judge the good doctor’s artistic ability. It was something, though, to see the throngs of pilgrims kissing the safe, including some hoping to be healed there by God’s mercy. Reportedly, Muslims (who honor Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus the messenger) also make pilgrimage to this monastery, though I didn’t knowingly see any there. The views from the wall of the monastery were spectacular. Tim told us that the monastery and convent at Our Lady’s provides rooms for many Iraqi refugees while they search for new homes in Syria.

St. Thomas’s monastery is three hundred years older than Jesus. It was a place of sacrifice for the Roman gods until the Romans adopted Christianity, and we could still see the sacrificial pits inside the church and in the caves around the church. Saint Thomas (the apostle) is said to have visited this monastery on his way to India, where he would be martyred for Jesus.

The Cherubim Monastery also predates Christ, and sits at the very top of the mountain, far above any other buildings. If it weren’t for the thunderstorm that crept up on us that day, we probably could have seen Damascus from the top. As it was, we could see all of Seidnayya, and the mountains beyond, and the plains beyond those mountains. There is currently a Russian-funded project to build a statue of Jesus at the monastery that will be tall enough to be seen from Lebanon. We saw the completed base of the statue there – it’s pretty big. The monastery welcomes visitors. I may go there to spend a night sometime.

At the Cherubim Monastery, a priest who spoke pretty good English was talking to Peter and I. Peter explained that he became a Christian only recently. The priest turned to me and said, “And you, have you repented?”

Repented? Repented of what?

Seeing my blank stare, the priest elaborated. “Have you repented? Are you born again?”

Ohh… “Yes, yes I have repented, thanks be to God.” It was a good reminder.

Throughout the day, Tim told us his story. It’s long and intense, and this is how I recall it.

Tim is from Baghdad. He grew up under the rule of Saddam Hussein. In school, he memorized 1,400 pages of American English words in font size 8, so his English is pretty good. (Also, compared to him, I fail at life.) In 1987, when he was attending university (and at the height of the brutal Iran-Iraq War), Saddam ordered that all the university students spend three weeks of their summer vacation in army training. Their supervisors were students from the military academy, whom Tim claims resented the civilian students, because only people who fail the tests to get into civilian university went to military school. Tim and his friends were allowed only three hours of sleep a day. If they didn’t finish their meals in the allotted time, their overseers would force them to vomit. (Tim told us this over some delicious hamburgers in Seidnayya, to explain why he ate his so fast.) Six students died during the training. One of Tim’s friends tried to run away, but when he got into the desert, he saw some wolves and jackals, and hid in the sand until morning, when he was found by the army trainers, and brutally punished. Saddam, Tim claims, hated all Iraqis, because “they f***ed his mother.” (He claims she was a prostitute. I hadn’t heard this before, but I know Saddam grew up poor).

Eventually, Tim became a chemical engineer. Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son-in-law (who would be murdered by Saddam in 1995) was in charge of Tim’s program.  Kamal treated the engineers brutally, and Tim was pushed to the psychological breaking point.  He decided to escape to Yemen.

After Saddam fell, Tim tried to return to Iraq. He spent fifty days in northern Iraq – forty with his family, ten in jail. The Kurdish militias came to his hotel, arrested him, accused him of being from Yemen (after living there for fourteen years, he had picked up the Yemeni accent) and of forging his Iraqi citizenship papers, and beat him so badly he couldn’t move his right side for a week. After that, he decided he wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Iraq, so he moved to Syria.

He spent a few months as a novice in two of the monasteries in Seidnayya. Now he works as a chemical engineer in a factory in Damascus. He says he loves living in Damascus. But he wants to go to America. All he wants, he says, is a “calm life."

Iraqis have a saying, he told me. “Look out for the jackal, look out for the wolf.” It describes a life that is never calm or restful. There is always danger to look out for. He is sick of living like this, he says. He just wants to rest, to be calm.

In Seidnayya, we visited a 105-year-old woman that Tim had lived with for a time after he came to Syria. (For perspective on how old that is, she was born under the Ottoman Empire, was ten when World War I devastated the Middle East, forty when the Syrians kicked out the French occupiers and gained independence, and sixty-five years old when President Hafiz Assad came to power in Syria in 1970.) She hobbled down the cement stairs in her home to greet us. She was impossibly short, impossibly wrinkled, and had an impossible warmth and strength about her. She asked Tim to bring her a candle, so that should could pray for the war in Iraq to end.

“Is Iraq getting better?” I ask Tim.

“No. Iraq is gone forever.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “We did not know what we were doing.”

He smiles gracefully and changes the subject.


  1. Fantastic writing as usual Joel. You always manage to put things into perspective. Thanks for sharing these stories.

  2. Amazing stories! It felt like I was right there listening to Tim's stories too. What an adventure! What a day!

  3. Hi Joel,

    Neal and I want to send you a Christmas card but are unsure of your current address... Please reply with it to our email unless you don't want our card :P