Thursday, June 26, 2008

Travelogue 2: Out and About in the Police State

When you travel someplace new and then find that everything is exactly as you expected it to be, than chances are, you just have not been paying attention. The true joy of travel lies in the unexpected discovery. This certainly applies to my visit to Syria.

As mentioned earlier, I took a little perverse pleasure in going to Syria, a country which didn't quite make Bush's "Axis of Evil" list, but is probably number one on the list of "Friends of the Axis of Evil." Our current administration has been huffing and puffing about Syria for years, apparently to no avail. And lets' face it, Damascus has often been something less than a class act. They have been behind perfectly dreadful developments in Lebanon, for example. Every country sees to their own self-interests, maintaining alliances designed for their security, not ours. Syria has managed to survive in a very tough neighborhood. And that's my point, I guess--it's their neighborhood, not ours.

The al-Assad family has been in power since 1970, a monarchy in everything but name. Hafez al-Assad was the long-running dictator. He was grooming his dashing, daring, race-car driving eldest son, Basil, as successor. But this son died in a smash-up in 1994. The next son, Bashar, did not quite fit the strongman mold. He was a London ophthalmologist, and looked the part--tall and gangly, with a weak chin and somewhat cheesy moustache. But Bashar has apparently taken to the dictator business. He assumed power in 2000 upon his father's death, and the al-Assad machine seems to be running as smoothly as ever.

Images of the al-Assads are literally everywhere, particularly in northern Syria. It is hard to escape their gaze, either from billboards, or posters in shop windows, or even decals inside of taxis. Some shop owners seem to be competing to see how many posters of Bashar al-Assad they can put up in their stores. Some are of Bashar looking sternly, others of him smiling broadly, some are of him in military uniform, and some are of him with his sons--introducing, I suppose, the next generation to his country. Aleppo seems even more awash in Assads than Damascus. I had to chuckle at what I saw on the outskirts of the city. On the main highway from Damascus, in the middle of a large traffic circle, is a grandiose larger-than-life statue of Bashar al-Assad. He is portrayed in his military uniform, riding a steed, which happens to be in mid-jump. As such, al-Assad is raised somewhat from the saddle. He and the horse are facing Aleppo, so that when one is entering the city from Damascus, the first sight that greats drivers is the rather ample cast-iron butt of Bashar al-Assad. I can say that now.

Syrians love to discuss world events and politics--obviously, just not Syrian politics. Our own president loves to speak of the Middle East's "yearning" for liberty and freedom. Most of our country (or at least 72%) now recognize this as the self-serving, self-justifying, fantasizing rhetoric that got us in the mess we now find ourselves in. Admittedly, my exposure to Syria is limited to this recent 10-day stay in their country. But I detected no such Bushian "yearnings." In fact, time and again in my travels, I am struck by the utter sameness of the human condition. Blue jeans cost nearly as much over there as they do here, but my friend in Aleppo only makes $60 per week. Syrians yearn for the same things we do: economic opportunity, a house of their own, food on the table, education for their children, a little security in old age, and maybe a day at the seashore now and then. If the central government is not too obtrusive, I don't think they are terribly concerned that theirs is an authoritarian regime. The problem Syria faces is providing jobs for its burgeoning population (one is immediately struck by the number of children in the country). But I saw no evidence of a downtrodden, resentful citizenry. In fact, Syria showed every sign of being a going concern, with lots of commerce amidst something of a building boom.

This brings me to where I am going with this. An abiding passion of mine is the plight of the ancient, authentic, indigenous Christian communities of the Middle East. In this regard, we are accustomed to certain images and news stories: the persecution and dhimmitude of the Egyptian Copts, the plight of the diminishing Palestinian Christians caught between the Israeli confiscation and Palestinian Muslim extremism, the destruction of the 2,000 year old Iraqi Christian society, the massacre of southern Sudanese Christians, beheadings of priests in Kurdistan, Armenian genocide denial, and the on-going strangulation of Orthodox Christianity in Turkey. The common thread which runs through all these stories--their precariousness--is an unrelentingly bleak picture.

I am pleased to report that such does not seem to be the case in Syria, or Jordan either for that matter. In Turkey, our churches are hidden, closeted behind walled compounds. In Syria and Jordan, Orthodox and Catholic churches are out in the wide open, for everybody to see. In Turkey, the Orthodox are not seen as Turkish at all, but a foreign element--Greeks, to be precise (the fact that they were there a 1,000 years before the Turks is an inconvenient and forgotten historical fact among Turks. ) In Syria, Christians are seen as Syrians, and Arabs....just Syrian Arab Christians. Christian society is not at all hidden. Such seems to be the case for Jordan, as well. In Aleppo, there are 60,000 Armenian Christians alone. In Hama, one of the most conservative Muslim cities in Syria, a new Greek Orthodox cathedral, and educational complex sit un-walled, in the very heart of the city. In northwest Syria, a string of 27 Christian towns and villages is known as "Christian Valley." At the monastery of St. George, I met up with 2 busloads of "church ladies" on a pilgrimage from the Orthodox Church in Latakia. Churches are dotted throughout downtown Damascus--certainly not as ubiquitous as mosques, but noticeable all the same. We were blessed to attend a liturgy in THE Church of St. George in Ez'ra, which contains the actual tomb of St. George. The church was full of young people, with enthusiastic chanting that would make any Baptist or Church of Christ member proud. This 4th-century church was impressive in its own right, but I noticed 3 other churches in the near neighborhood, including one large new church under construction. Looking out over Sednaya, from the terrace of its famous convent, I counted at least a half-dozen church domes. In Madaba, Jordan, I would watch the Muslim boys walking to their school in one direction, and the Muslim girls, in their green tunics, walking to school in the other direction. But the best school in town was the huge Orthodox school in the center of town.

In short, the safest place for Christians in the Middle East is in Syria, and I suppose, Jordan. In fact, most of the Iraqi Christians who have fled the destruction of their community have settled here. Maybe that is why I give the Assad regime a bit of a pass. The Assads themselves are a member of a small minority--the Alawites, a heretical offshoot of Shiite Islam, in a country that is overwhelmingly Sunni. (It would be somewhat akin to a Mormon being ruler over a country of Southern Baptists.) Obviously, this situation may not last...things can change (see Iraq). And as I understand it, many of these Christians have an exit strategy, in case things turn sour. But for now, Syria is a place of Christian refuge. And for this, they deserve more credit than we have given them.

More on the Syrian Christian community in my next post.

me at the ruined Church of St. Simeon the Stylite
Damascus street scene (Four Seasons Hotel on left)
near the old city, Damascus (with billboard of Bashar al Assad)
Aleppo castle (the one the Crusaders didn't capture)
Sunday school class after liturgy, Church of St. George, Ez'ra


Anonymous said...

Oh my; if I were cashed-up I'd be on the next plane. Thank you for the fascinating information on the countries and cities, particularly the state of them for Christians. May the Lord bless and protect all Christians [and all people for that matter] in the Middle East.

I do not want to detract from your fascinating and informative commentary, but may I ask how you found travelling by yourself [I am assuming you did; please correct me if I am wrong]. I have considered it, but wondered if it would be better to join a small tour to see outside the cities, and then look at the cities myself. My thanks.

John said...

Ian, I traveled the first week on my own, and then my nephew joined me for the remaining 2 weeks. So really, I was not traveling alone for much of the trip--but with just the 2 of us, it was still far removed from tour-group travel. But I suppose it is what you are comfortable with. I do so much research before I ever go anywhere, that I don't feel I need the safety and security of a tour group. I generally know what sites I especially want to visit, and usually where I want to stay. In the case of Syria, I decided on a tour agent and contacted him. I informed him of where I wanted to stay, where I wanted to go, and the days that I would need a car and driver. We agreed upon a price for all this (very reasonable, I might add), and all the arrangements were made. It couldn't have been easier. Obviously, I could have used public transportation and made the reservations myself and drastically reduced the cost, but I felt that this arrangement was the best use of my time, and like I say, it was all very reasonable. The key, whether you travel alone or in a group, is to do your research beforehand. I recently took one of my students to task. His parents were giving him a month in Europe as a college graduation gift. I asked him where all he was going. He didn't know--no idea at all. He said some of the friends he was traveling with were keeping up with those details. What a waste!

Anonymous said...

Thanks John; much appreciated. I suppose I was more concerned about my lack of Arabic language ability...but then that is part of the fun and experience, and I have been in places before where I could not speak the local language. Thanks again.

John said...

Ian, I have absolutely no Arabic language ability, other than being able to say hello. But it was not a problem at all. This is a crutch we Americans rely on far too often, but just about everyone speaks some English. My driver in Syria spoke Arabic of course, some French, and just a smattering of English. I spoke no Arabic, and just a bit of French. So we met, conversationally, in what can only be called "Franglish." As it turned out, he assumed that I knew more French than I actually did--which forced me to exercise my French-speaking skills. If I went into a restaurant, and the waiter knew no English, he would return with a co-worker who did. At the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus in Maalula, a young lady gave short talks to the different groups that came to visit. She had just finished speaking to an Italian group--in Italian, of course. She then switched to English for my nephew and myself. She also was able to recite the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic (still spoken here and in 2 other nearby villages). I'm sure that if a party of French tourists arrived, she would be able to deliver her talk to them in French. We were talking with her about this, and I commented that English had become the universal second language. She disagreed, and said that English had become the universal first language. All of this is to say that in my travels, language barriers are insiginificant. But our lack of fluency in any other language is still shameful, in my book.

Anonymous said...

I'm always excited to read your reports and reflections after a trip, John. By the way, I thought of you after picking up a good book recently. It's called "The Towers of Trebizond" and was written in the 1950s, I think, by a British author names Rose Macaulay. It's wonderfully charming, really, about a small group of eccentric Anglican missionaries travelling through Turkey and the Levant. I'm still reading it, but I think you might enjoy it. It was recently republished in the US through New York Review of Books. You can order it online.

- Doug (former of the The Scrivener)

John said...

Doug--how wonderful to hear from you. I will be slowly posting more travel observations. I am familiar with "The Towers of Trebizond"-- a great read. Some have said that it has the best opening line in English literature: "Take my camel, dear, said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."