Sunday, March 20, 2011

Setting the scene

Syrians love to make jokes about other Syrians. In Damascus, the two regions of Syria that take the brunt of these jokes are the city of Homs in the north, and the flat, fertile, rural region of Horan in the south.

In the Bible, Horan is called “Bashan,” and features in several of the early battles for the Holy Land led by Moses and Joshua. Later, it was a major center of power for the Nabateans, or, as my Horani friend Wihbih calls them, “the old Arabs.” The artifacts of their civilization, and the later Roman and Muslim conquerors, can be found throughout Horan.

In modern times, Horan figures both as an agricultural region and as a staging ground for the Syrian military. Horan lies adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and is littered with Syrian military bases. From the roof of my friend Omar’s house, the mountains of the Heights dominate the view to the west, and a Syrian military base lies a stone’s throw away.

The residents of Horan themselves are known for, and mocked good-naturedly for, their accent, their appetite for chicken shwerma (an Arab fast food dish), and their generally rural ways.

“What’s the fastest thing in the universe?” goes one of Brother George’s jokes. “Not light – it’s a Horani who’s been invited to dinner.” Brother George himself is from Horan, and is endlessly ribbed for his shwerma habit. It’s a habit I’ve acquired from him since I moved here in September.

There are four boys from Horan in the seminary. Whenever one of them does something funny or clumsy, the other boys will laugh and shout “Horani, Horani!” When one of them gets into a fight, their antagonist will mutter angrily, “Shu Horani!” How Horan-like!

I have visited the Horan four times – once to see the ancient citadel/theater at Bosra with my father, and three times to visit the families of my friends there. On my second visit, I was attacked by mosquitoes while I slept, and woke with a face covered in about thirty bug bites. When I returned to the seminary, the priest and the boys shook their heads knowingly. “That’s what you get for going to Horan,” they told me.

Despite the disdain of the Damascenes, the Horan has a special place in my heart. The air is fresh, unlike polluted Damascus, and the flat landscape reminds me of my home state, Iowa. The residents spend their leisure time smoking shisha on each other’s porches, riding motorbikes through their villages, and picking olives in their family orchards. The ruins of Rome, the Byzantines and the early Muslims are so common that people use them for homes and stables, and walk and play on ancient Roman streets. At night the sky is lit up with stars, and I can fall asleep to the sound of the wind over the plains, not the traffic on the highway outside my window. And there’s no better place in Syria to eat shwerma.

I have never been to Deraa. It’s one of those cities that everyone talks about, but there’s never a reason to go to. It’s mentioned in the Bible under the name “Edrei,” the capital of Og, the king of Bashan, who Moses defeated and killed before his death on Mount Nebo (see Numbers 21:33). By all accounts, there’s little evidence of Deraa’s ancient heritage left today, and the town is simply a local big city, an exceptionally normal town, part of the atmosphere. Hearing that it’s been “sealed off” is bewildering. For you Iowans, imagine if Cedar Rapids was “sealed off.”

Now go read the BBC, and you'll know as much as I do. Please pray for Syria, and for the Horan.

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the LORD has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

No comments:

Post a Comment