Monday, June 30, 2008

When Do-Gooders Travel

In the Sunday Times, I always look for "Why We Travel" in the Travel Section. Each week, a photograph and short description highlight a particular traveler's experience.

This issue featured a Georgia couple, Dannie and Vicki Smith, visiting the Orthodox Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova. The Smiths were part of a Christian mission trip, sponsored by the Christian Medical and Dental Association. Mrs. Smith spoke of the poverty in Moldova and praying with the villagers and the comfort the team was able to bring to their lives. Before returning home, they visited the Cathedral in the capital. Mrs. Smith's commented, as follows:

I remember thinking that all the beautiful icons, paintings and other antique things in the church were beautiful and old, but also that it all seemed a waste of money. I thought of all the ‘stuff’ we were looking at and thought that really, God is simple and seen in creation, not in what our hands can make.

While sad, it is oh so typical: standing in a holy place, undoubtedly bathed in the blood of martyrs, American evangelicals see only a "waste of money." Certainly such things would be out of place in a nondenominational Faith Outreach Center or some such back home in Thomaston, Georgia. In a stripped-down, clinical, cramped, least-common-denominator, protestantized Christianity, beauty must indeed seem foolish (though I suspect a gymnasium attached to the church auditorium would not seem so.) I am hardly the one to make the case for why such a view is so wrong-headed. But Mrs. Smith would might do well to read Dostoevsky, who observed that God will save the world through beauty.

In no way do I intend to discredit good works of the well-intentioned, who offer their medical services to people in need. Mrs. Smith plans to return next year because "we love the people of Moldova and realize that we can offer them hope.” Well, maybe so. But between now and then, perhaps she use the time to learn a little something about the culture, history and yes, the faith of the country she is visiting. The full article, here.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Travelogue 3: The Middle East as seen through 7 Mohammeds

On of the joys of traveling in the East is the natural friendliness and hospitality one experiences there. I have always found this to be so in Turkey, and was to find it even more the case in the Middle East itself. They are people given to small kindnesses and courtesies. Of course, the cynic would note that this was totally wrapped-up in the possibility that you might purchase something in their shop. Granted. But the hospitality goes much deeper--to the core of the Middle Eastern psyche. And this behavior goes all the way back to the beginning. Countless biblical passages recount the kindnesses shown to the traveler, the stranger, the guest. In fact, in Orthodoxy, the only iconographic representation of the Trinity is known as the "Hospitality of Abraham," in which the patriarch receives the 3 angels at Mamre, a type of the Holy Trinity.

The innate Arab friendliness and hospitality makes it easy to strike up acquaintances. In visiting the ruins of the Church of St. Simeon the Stylite, I was the only person there, other than a young European couple (German, I think). I wanted a picture of myself in front of the base of St. Simeon's pillar. So, I asked the young man--as politely as possible--if he would do so. He obliged me, and I thanked him. But all I got out of him was a grunt, and a look of being inconvenienced. I am making no sweeping generalizations based on a chance encounter with a rude western European; only noting how at odds such behavior was with what I was experiencing among the locals.

So yes, it was easy to make friends along the way, and for a time at least, most of them seemed to be named Mohammed. I arrived in Damascus on a flight from Paris about 9:30 at night. In the Middle East, many, if not most flights arrive and depart in the middle of the night. My connecting flight to Aleppo would not leave until 1:30 in the morning, so I had a 4 hour layover there at the airport. There were no more flights arriving or departing until my 1:30 flight, but then I noticed about 4 flights departing after mine and before daybreak. So, until after midnight or so, the Damascus airport was an almost deserted, forlorn spot to hang out. The entire terminal reeked of smoke. I am the farthest thing removed from a Smoking Nazi, but as an American, it has been decades since I have been exposed to anything quite like this. But after a while, I slowly accustomed myself to the lingering haze. The shops in the airport remained open all night, but as there were no customers, the clerks occupied themselves with visiting one another, drinking countless cups of tea, and of course, smoking. About midnight, the airport lobby began to slowly fill with Damascene travelers, arriving for the flight to Aleppo. Two young men in ill-fitting suits sat down beside me. They both appeared exhausted from whatever business they had been conducting in Damascus. But after a while, they introduced themselves as Mohammed and Bashar, and struck up a conversation. Mohammed seemed eager to practice his English. He also informed me that he was studying German on his own. He offered to buy me something to drink as we waited. The offering of something to drink is as natural with Arabs as greeting someone itself. It is also polite, and expected, to ask of family matters. I learned that he was 27 years old, one of 7 children. He was engaged to be married in November, but he and his fiance wanted only 2, or perhaps 3 children. We exchanged cards. I learned that he had a stationary store, and also specialized in printing invitations and other items related to weddings. He wanted me to call him the next day, come to his shop and we would go to lunch together. As it turned out, my time in Aleppo was crowded, and I was ultimately unable to do this. As I have his card, I do plan to email him, thank him for his kindness, and congratulate him on his upcoming nuptials.

I spent the first day in Syria walking the old city of Aleppo: exploring the citadel, checking out the Great Mosque, strolling through the souq (bazaar area), getting lost in Jdeide District (the old Christian Quarter), having a beer at the Baron Hotel bar (T. E. Lawrence slept here), stopping in at an internet cafe and just generally soaking up the street scene. The Aleppo souq is one of the most authentic around--not at all touristy, but catering to the everyday needs of its local customers. I was walking back through the souq, as it was the quickest way back to my hotel. A young man in one of the shops spoke to me in English. In Texas, we have a colloquial expression: "this ain't my first rodeo." Well, this wasn't my first souq, either. Shopowners and/or touts will start off a conversation with you, and before you know it, you are in their uncle's carpet shop. This young man was giving it a good shot, and as long as you understand what is going on, why not go along with it. After all, it is part of the experience. As you can probably guess, this young man was Mohammed No. 2.

Mohammed No. 2 was trying out his English on me. Of course he wanted to know where I was from. I replied, "the U.S." This answer is never sufficient, because everyone then wants to know where in the U.S. I put my hand to my mouth and whispered "Texas." This is my standard overseas response, and will remain so until January 20th, 2009. Everyone usually gets the joke and it is a great conversational ice-breaker. Mohammed didn't know much about the U.S. outside of pop culture references (singers and performers I was unfamiliar with), and the names of a few cities--Detroit and Las Vegas. He then told me that he was using Robin Williams as a guide to learning how to speak English, but that he thought he might be gay. I said no, he's just funny, that's all. He then proposed to take me to his cousin's shop (aah, here we go, I thought.) But then Mohammed mentioned the name of the shop and it was one I was familiar with--receiving good recommendations in travel guides, and one I intended to visit anyway before leaving Aleppo. So, I agreed to accompany Mohammed to his cousin's shop. If I purchased anything, he would receive a commission.

The cousin's establishment was an actually a nice place to stop; a small, corner shop, chock-full of interesting items. The cousin, Mohammed No. 3, seemed to be an earnest young entrepreneur. He could just as easily be selling real estate in Dallas. As it turns out, he had just returned from the U.S., as his wife was from Boston. And he was planning to return again before long. While he was busy talking to a client or supplier on the audio of his laptop, I sat around and drank tea and visited with Mohammed No. 2 and the manager of the store. Before I left, Mohammed No. 3 opened a secret door in the back wall, exposing a tiny staircase going up. We went upstairs, and sure enough--carpets! Like I say, I've been around enough in the region to understand the carpet market a bit. I really don't mind the sales pitch, if I'm rested and in the mood for it. But I walked away without purchasing...this time.

That night, I bumped into the manager of the store, and as neither of us had yet eaten, we had supper together at a nearby cafe. I was introduced to a dish pronounced something like "badinjon," which is ground lamb meat stuffed in eggplant--delicious! We had an interesting meal--touching on foreign relations and even religion. He described an unpleasant recent experience at the American embassy in Damascus. He had traveled there to take care of some visa paperwork for his employer. In his view, the soldiers and embassy staff unnecessarily humiliated him in their various security checkpoints. I replied that Americans are completely paranoid about terrorism. No, he said, Americans are afraid. I did not disagree with him. He asked about my komboschini (prayer rope). I explained to him what it was for and the words of the prayer. He did not understand the word "mercy," and asked me to explain what that was. I did my best to explain, all the while amazed to be reminded that this is a foreign concept in Islam. This episode put me in mind of a Spengler article from 2 years ago, that I re-read once I returned home. Spengler observed:

There is no Grace in Islam, no miracle, no expiatory sacrifice, no expression of love for mankind such that each Muslim need not be a sacrifice. On the contrary, the concept of jihad, in which the congregation of Islam is also the army, states that every single Muslim must sacrifice himself personally. Jihad is the precise equivalent of the Lord's Supper in Christianity and the Jewish Sabbath, the defining expression of sacrifice that opens the prospect of eternity to the mortal believer. To ask Islam to become moderate, to reform, to become a peaceful religion of personal conscience is the precise equivalent of asking Catholics to abolish Mass.

The entire article, found here, is well worth a read.

Before we parted that night, we met a friend of his--Mohammed No. 4. This young man operated a shop where he and his brother made towels. I walked over to a shop where his brother was working on the loom--that's right, the loom. They had learned the trade from their grandfather, who had learned it from his grandfather and who knows how far back beyond that. These brothers were at least the 5th generation in their family to operate this loom. They made a variety of towels, including supplying the towels for all the hammams (turkish baths) in the city. I sat there in this shop, drinking tea and chatting with Mohammed, while his brother was operating the loom. I learned that it took them 3 hours to make a full-sized towel. They kept the loom going for about 18 hours a day, with their dad opening early, and the sons working late. The following night was to be my last night in Aleppo. Before I left, I made sure I made my way back to this little shop and purchased a couple of hand towels for our kitchen.

The next morning I had arranged for a car and driver to go out to the Church of St. Simeon and also the Church at Qual Lauzeh. My driver was an older man who introduced himself to me as Mohammed. (Of course you are, I thought!) Mohammed No. 5 spoke some French and a smattering of English. I spoke no Arabic, and a smattering of French. We met, conversationally, at "Franglish," I suppose. Unfortunately, he assumed my French was better than it actually was. While we were driving north of Aleppo, I asked about his family. Mohammed had 2 wives, with 8 children by the first and 1 by the second. I asked if that was a problem. He replied, "for you, yes; but for me, no." He went on to say that Islam allowed him 4 wives. I already knew that, and was really asking if it was problematic having 2 wives together in the same household. But I never received an answer to that question! Later on, he observed, "la vie est dificile." I thought (but didn't say): "well, you should have thought of that before you had 2 wives and 9 children!"

Mohammed No. 6 came along on the last night in Aleppo. I received a recommendation on a nearby hamman. The Arabs, and all peoples of the Levant, for that matter, place great emphasis on personal cleanliness, and these Turkish baths are part of that rich cultural legacy. We would characterize them as just giant steam baths, but there is a definite protocol and etiquette to using these facilities. This particular hamman was of recent construction and contained, of all things, a swimming pool, as well. I am just like a little kid: give me 3 ft. of water and I'm happy. Mohammed, the manager of the hamman, was a real hoot--a cut-up, as we would say around here.

It was a number of days before I met Mohammed No. 7. He was our driver for 5 days in Jordan. This Mohammed was in his early 40s, a professional driver with a nice sedan for hire. He lived in Amman, with a wife and 3 or 4 children. He was consistently good-natured. As my nephew and I pulled ourselves out of the Dead Sea, Mohammed was waiting for us with ice cream cones. Only near the last, did we discover that he was actually Palestinian, whose family was from Bethlehem. He told us that his family had left Palestine for Amman 20 years earlier. Mohammed wouldn't talk about it, but I am sure there is a sad story behind it all.

Rublev's Hospitality of Abraham
Mohammed No. 4 and myself in his towel shop
In the souq, Aleppo

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

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I Just Love Irony

Today I read where Dr. James Dobson took issue with Barack Obama, here. I particularly noted one quote:

"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology," Dobson said, adding that Obama is "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."

Maybe the word "traditional" has a different meaning to Dr. Dobson. But of course, he should be an expert when it comes to "confused theology."

Like I say, I just love irony.

Actually, I think Dr. Dobson is a bit flustered, as things seem to be falling apart in the Southern religio-political coalition. He doesn't like John McCain any better. Maybe he's losing his focus.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Death of Henry Chadwick

James notes the death of Henry Chadwick, here.

Travelogue 1: Thoughts On Travel

No way around it--travel is one of life's luxuries. I consider it neither a right, nor perhaps even a privilege, but rather an indulgence reflecting the affluence of our age. Nor does travel necessarily bring out the best in human nature, exposing one as it does to temptations heretofore unimagined. Throughout history, travel for pleasure, or even for education, was something of a novelty. But in all times, there were those who were curious to see what lay on the other side of the hill. So, I am deeply thankful that at this stage of my life, family and financial obligations have arranged themselves in such a manner as to allow me the luxury of travel, and to--as this picture illustrates--stand in a Street Called Straight.

I am best as a solitary traveler. I broke from my pattern last summer when I traveled for a time in a company of others, making friendships I hope to keep for a lifetime. But admittedly, a group touring Georgian monasteries is, by definition, something of an eclectic group. All things considered though, traveling alone allows you to stand back and really contemplate the new environment in which you find yourself.

This point was brought home to me while wandering the ruins of Serjilla, one of the "dead cities" in northern Syria. These were prosperous provincial towns of the early Byzantine era, abandoned in the 8th century or so. The sites remain in a remarkable state of preservation--mansions, storehouses, churches, monasteries, mausoleums, etc.--and as William Dalrymple noted, some of these structures need only a roof to be habitable again. These cities fascinated me, being something of an amateur Byzantinist. Theirs was a society like none before or since--Roman power married to Greek philosophy, and all baptized with the Apostolic Faith. Standing on that windswept hill, one could almost sense the life of this ruined Byzantine cityscape.

At that point, a French tour group came upon the scene. They were chattering incessantly among themselves, and resembled nothing so much as a flock of noisy guinea hens, clucking and pecking their way across a farmyard. Maybe they were able to appreciate the site, but it is hard to see how with all the commotion.

I do not understand escapist travel either: mindless cruises, hedonistic spas, self-indulgent gambling junkets and such like. Unless one discovers a way to leave your mind at home (which is apparently the whole draw of Las Vegas), there is no possible way to "get away from it all." What a colossal waste of time and money.

Travel does offer a different perspective through which to view one's own life. This does not mean that you simply replace your traditions, views, and values with those of the places you visit. Rather, travel provides a differing context in which to better understand your own life situation, your place in the world and most importantly, to contemplate those things of a salvific nature.

That's all very high-minded and all, but how do I explain my recent travels to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and inadvertently, Israel? Particularly in regard to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, I have several flippant retorts at the ready. One, to quote Kinky Friedman's 2006 Texas gubernatorial campaign slogan--"Why the hell not?" Next, I do not like to stand in lines, so I go places where tourists aren't. Finally, the mere thought that the Bush-Cheney gang might not approve of my travels in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine is just all the more incentive to go.

On my flight from DFW to Paris, I couldn't help but overhear a one-sided conversation in the seats behind me. A man in his early 60s--garrulous, talkative and a bit profane--determined to strike up a conversation with his seatmate, a man of his early 40s. The older man had been quite literally everywhere, starting with a tour of Vietnam in the 60s. He was now headed for--as he said, Slovania and Croatia. The younger man was not at all talkative. He was an engineer for some large Texas oil drilling firm, that was sending him to Toulouse to meet with French designers of a specialized drilling tool. He was almost moping about the trip (oh yes, an expense paid trip to France in the spring is perfectly dreadful!) By the time we were in the air, the older man was already on his first vodka tonic and carrying on what was very much a one-sided conversation about travel and places around the world. He asked the younger man if he was familiar with Slovania and Croatia, to which the man replied that he had never heard of them. Finally, the younger man, in an apparent effort to contribute something to this conversation, asked "Well, why in the world are you going to Slovenia?" The older man seemed taken aback, and momentarily at a loss for words. He paused briefly and replied, "Well, I've never been there." At this point, I leaned over my seat and said "that is exactly the right answer."

But the real reason I chose Syria has a lot to do with William Dalrymple, and his From the Holy Mountain. This book from the mid 1990s chronicles the plight of the ancient and now-beleaguered Orthodox Christian communities in the modern Levant. Dalrymple is simply one of the best travel writers around, and much of my explorations in recent years have been in retracement of his steps. Since my first exposure to his work, I have become Orthodox myself, which obviously adds another dimension to my travels.

Though taking root here and there, Orthodoxy remains something of an exotic hothouse flower in America. And yet, contrary to some, I am not at all pessimistic about Orthodoxy's prospects in our country. For it is a permanent thing, tenacious and resilient. I see pockets of the ancient faith that survive (and even prosper) in parts of the Middle East, in the face of a prevailing culture that is overwhelmingly in opposition, if not downright antagonism, to Orthodoxy. So there are lessons for us here as we strive for lives of authentic faithfulness. Our own culture, with its artificial divide between all things secular and the Divine, is no less antagonistic.

Other travel posts to follow...

Photographs, in order:
The Street Called Straight, Old City Damascus
Bazaar, Old City Damascus
The Final Judgement, Mar Mousa Monastery, Syria
View from Mar Mousa looking East
Church of St. George, Ezra, Syria

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Your Man in Damascus

Just checking in...I have spent the last week in Syria, as well as 1 day in Lebanon. Later on, I will be in Jordan and Palestine. Smooth sailing so far...