Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter letter

Dear friends and family,

For (I think) understandable reasons, I’ve been holding off on blogging and Facebook activity recently. But a lot of you have been writing to me, and I actually had a pretty fantastic Easter weekend, so I thought I’d give you all a break from reading alarmist headlines, and tell you a little bit about it.

On Maundy Thursday, I went out for breakfast with my great American friend Ben. We ate a Syrian delicacy called “fuul,” which is basically giant, juicy garabanzo beans dipped in oil and hummus. Later, I helped Brother George mail off his last university application (which we’ve been working together on for months), bid him farewell as he went home to his family, and decided to skip the evening church services so I could hang out with my best Iraqi friend, A. A. We spent all night exploring the Old City, eating ice cream, and watching Inception for (his) first time. “That. Was. Awesome!” he exclaimed after the final scene.

Oh yes.
On Good Friday, I climbed Mount Qassion, the mountain that overlooks Damascus, with the directors of the Iraqi Student Project and the guests they are hosting in Syria this week. We hiked to a Muslim shrine on the mountain that supposedly marks the place where Cain killed Abel. The shrine contains a cave with a handprint-like formation on its ceiling. In the Muslim telling of the story, the world was so horrified at history's first murder that the cave tried to collapse on Cain to kill him, but the angel Gabriel held up the cave with his hands so that the human race might be preserved. The shrine also features rooms where Abraham and St. George the Dragon-Slayer both prayed to Allah. A little far-fetched? Perhaps, but it was a lovely shrine, and from the balcony, we could see all of Damascus.

The upper part of the shrine is dedicated to “The Forty,” a group of forty holy individuals who are so close to God that they sustain the world by their very existence. Their identities are never revealed to living mortals, and whenever one dies, another is born to replace him or her. My Muslim Iraqi friend S. V. was overwhelmed by the beauty of this shrine, and methodically touched all forty markers while praying to God. Later, she had us sit in a circle in the shrine, so she could tell us the story of Rabia Basri, a female Muslim saint from Baghdad whom S.V. was certain was one of the Forty while she was alive. Rabia, although a slave girl, devoted her whole life to prayer and ascetism, and became renowned as a woman of great wisdom and compassion. She prayed, "O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”

After we descended the mountain, we spent a few hours eating falafel and singing peace songs at the house of the ISP directors. We then took a walking tour through Salihiyye, a neighborhood of Damascus that contains dozens of mosques from the 12th century. Salihiyye is miles away from the Old City of Damascus; this is because the orthodox Sunni rulers of Damascus forced the mystical Sufi Muslims to practice their faith outside the city limits. Today, Salihiyye is a beautiful district where ordinary people live, work and go shopping among eight-century-old mosques and the tombs of Sufi saints and Muslim rulers.

After that, we headed to my church, the Olive Church in the Old City, for the evening Good Friday service. (Point of interest: The Arabs call it “il-jam3a il-azeem” – “GREAT Friday.”) The Patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church gave the sermon, and the priests circled the sanctuary holding up an empty coffin that we all tossed roses into. Some of the congregants on the other side of the aisle weren’t very good shots, and we ended up getting pelted with roses. Which was nice, I suppose. Even though I still don’t understand church Arabic, it was a great service.

Holy Saturday was simply wonderful. The ISP directors, their guests, two Iraqi parents, my Iraqi friend A.A., and me, all got on a bus and headed on a roadtrip to the Roman cities of southern Syria. (Yes, we made a roadtrip – and it was fine!) At this time of year, southern Syria is bright green with crops. It was a welcome sight after months of living in the endless grays of Damascus. At one stop, A.A. and I ripped some grass out of the ground and rolled it in our faces. I missed that smell. We drove past Jebel il-3arab, a mountain considered holy by the Druze religious sect, for reasons they won’t divulge. Our first stop was Shahba, a city built by Philip, the only Roman emperor of Arab descent, in his own honor. Unfortunately, he was assassinated just five years into his rule, so the city was never finished, and a result, it’s a little small. But it has some amazing, perfectly preserved mosaics featuring scenes from Greek mythology, a Roman theater and temple, and a tower from which we looked out over the whole valley.

Our next stop was Bosra, a black-stone city home to ruins from four great civilizations – the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantine Christians and the Muslims. I had gone here once before with my dad, but it was great to come again and see some things I didn’t catch before. A highlight was sitting at the very top of Bosra’s castle/perfectly-preserved Roman theater and eating Syrian pastries with A. A. and all my new friends from America. Also, seeing a 1700-year-old OUTDOOR fresco on one of Bosra’s churches, which still clearly depicts the angel Gabriel greeting Mary.

Today, Easter Sunday, I awoke at 4:30 AM to go to the 5 AM Easter morning mass. It was beautiful, but it lasted for THREE HOURS. And again, I understood none of it. That was a little rough. But afterward, the Patriarch handed out hardboiled, dyed Easter eggs, and I went out to brunch with all the ISP guests, so it was all good.

I spent Easter afternoon with A. A.’s family, who are Christian refugees from Iraq. They treated me to some delicious Iraqi food – roast lamb and lamb fat served on metal skewers, eaten in bread pockets with grilled tomatoes and onions. Also, a bonus: Turkish beer!

They also told me stories about their lives in Iraq before and after the invasion. They used to celebrate Easter with big parties in their family’s garden, with beers and barbeque. (Arabs love barbeque.) After the war, the lack of security and threats from Islamic extremists made it necessary to celebrate Easter and Christmas indoors, after closing the curtains on all their windows. One striking fact A. A.’s father shared with me was that after the Gulf War, 80% of Iraq’s electricity infrastructure was destroyed. Saddam Hussein’s government restored power in two months. Today, eight years after the American invasion, most Iraqis are still waiting for regular electrical service to return. Unsurprisingly, most Iraqis view this as deliberate.

It still hurts to hear stories like this about the unintended consequences of my country’s actions. Adding to the disappointment, my friends told me they had planned an outdoor picnic for Easter this year, but changed their plans because of the situation.

Still, we had a wonderful time playing chess and backgammon, watching American TV with Arabic subtitles, listening to A. A. play his oud, and looking at pictures of Iraq, Syria and Sweden on the family’s home computer.

Tomorrow, the ISP guests, the ISP students (most of whom are currently en route to Damascus from Baghdad after their spring break) and me are making a trip to three Christian holy sites north of Damascus, and I may or may not get asked to lead a hiking tour at the last site. It should be great.

I can’t give you lots of juicy details about the situation here, but I hope this summary has convinced you that a) I’m not cowering in my room from fear of Molotov cocktails, and b) I’m still loving my time in Syria and still count myself blessed to be working and learning here among such amazing people.

MaseeHa Qaam! Christ is risen!


"And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross."

- Colossians 2:13-15

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