Now as Saul was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.' (Acts 9:3-6)
25 october, damascus
We piled into a mini-van and headed to Damascus, Syria on Sunday. I could somehow feel right away that we were not in Lebanon anymore, though I am still not sure I could say what the exact differences were. Perhaps this will explain it: when we were coming back into Lebanon on Tuesday (more on why we did that later) at the border the driver, who was Syrian, said to me, "Now you are leaving Asia and going into Europe." Syria is pointedly an Arab Republic, at this point pretty much run by a one party system, though that party insists that it is heading toward democracy. There is much less English or French spoken here. And the Syrians and Lebanese don't seem to be too fond of each other. One Lebanese told me that the Lebanese are more proud and think of the Syrians as backward because of the language issue and because they are more simple. I haven't met anyone who was disagreeable to us, though folks have been a little less forward with their hospitality while still generous.
We all stayed at Mar Elias, a monastery guesthouse quite near the walls of the old city. As we drove in Agnete pointed out to us the place where St Paul was lowered over the wall to escape the the Jews that wanted to kill him fort preaching Jesus immediately after his conversion. Right next to the guesthouse was the chapel of St Paul's conversion, surrounded by rather modern architecture covering over a cave into which has been placed an altar, with ampitheatre style seating sweeping up beyond it. It would have been a great place for a concert too, with no microphones. Steve and Ace and I took a little tour of the neighborhood for about an hour before dinner, just as it was getting dark. It was certainly not as Westerner-tourist friendly as the areas in Beirut where we stayed. We stopped in and had a halting conversation with a man who ran a music store with all kinds of stringed instruments, espeically ouds. He was hard at work installing an electric pick-up in an oud when we walked in and he happily turned it on and tuned it up and played for us for a while. Then Agnete bustled us off for a sumptuous meal at a restaurant near the Bab Touma-the Thomas Gate. The Syrians are quite proud of the fact that they sent St Thomas off from here to evangelize India, hence eventually the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malakar rites. (Syrian is not really spoken much anymore, replaced by Arabic centuries ago, but it is still used for prayer. I was remembering how Fr Bede spoke so fondly of those rites, which he and Fr Francis were translating into English, because the Syriac was so close to the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. We were told that there are still a few villages in northern Syria where that Aramaic is still spoken.)
The restaurant was built into a large courtyard which Agnete told us was a typical Damascene house. It was quite crowded and is obviouslty popular with Westerners who come this way, as we were not nearer to the tourist center, the old city. The food here has been wonderful, but I desparately wanted something a little closer to my normal diet, and so with Linda's help I asked the waiter if it was possible to just get a plate of rice and some vegetables, since that was what accompanied all the meat dishes anyway, "because I don't take meat," I told the waiter. He said, "Why not?" and brought me a meal worthy of Santa Cruz county, a big plate of vegetables and a mound of rice. As we were leaving later I thanked the waiter for getting me that special meal and he tapped his stomach and said, "I hope you feel better." Apparently he thgouth that anyone who doesn't eat meat must be sick. His remark was prescient, as you will see below.
Monday we had a grand tour of the old city. Agnete had asked me the other day if I was enjoying myself. I told her in my own obtuse way, "I'm not not enjoying myself" but I was focused right now on the work at hand, not really able to relax. But that day, I really enjoyed myself. We walked right up Straight Street, the street mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles where Ananias went to meet Paul (then Saul) and pray over him to cure him of his blindness. As a matter of fact we were able to spend some time praying in the Ananias' chapel, a beautiful subterannean stone structure. We walked up past many artisans' shops and wound up at yet another sumptuous restaurant that also seemed to cater to Westerners. All of the wait persons were dressed up in period costumes as if from Ali Baba. I thought we were going just for a snack but it wound up being a bit of a feast again. I th9ink that there is no such thing as a simple meal here in the mideast. By now I'm on it though and have figured out how to order for myself, and I got a delicious lentil soup and an artichoke salad. After that Linda took us on to visit the souq and the grand Ummayad mosque.
A souq is a marketplace, and this is one of the most famous in the mideast. It appears to be miles of covered rows of shops, many of them specializing in just a few items, coffee, gold, cloth, produce, etc. And it truly is where people do their daily shopping. The biggest delight of the tour of the souq was that Ace found an old friend of his there, a gold merchant that he had known and worked with in Abu Dabi some years ago. As a matter of fact, the guy had an old photo of he and Ace under the glass that covered his desktop. He was a gold merchant, and after exchanging some greetings and family news, the two of them and Steve launched into a discussion about the price of gold and the economy and how Ben Bernanke's decisions on November 3rd are going to effect the global market.
We then went into the Ummayad mosque. The place had started life in the 9th century as an Aramean temple to thier god Hadad, then became old Roman temple to Jupiter, which during the time of Constantine was converted to a Christian basilica, and then to a mosque in the 7th century. At first the Christians and Muslims shared the space half and half, but slowly the Christians were elbowed when the caliph decided he needed to buld a mosque equal to any one in the world. In it is also a large sarcophagus that is said to contain the head of John the Baptist who is revered by both Christians and Muslims. Pope John Paul II visited there in 2002.
A young man motioned to us that he wanted someone to take his picture next to John's monument. Steve obliged and struck up a little conversation with him afterward. He asked Steve were he was from, Steve said USA and asked where he was from. Iraq. I don't remember the rest of the conversation, but the young man, Mustafa, couldn't have been more gracious. He kept saying, "You are most welcome here. You are welcome. Most welcome." We ran into him again later outside and again he wanted a phot take. This time I did the honors and we talked some more. He was an engineer but there was no work in Iraq. He was there with his mother and father; he was pushing his father around in a wheelchair. This was the first of many encoutners with Iraquis, and I must say they were all that gracious to us, but it is chilling to hear their stories. Many of them are applying to the UN for refugee status, and several we met are trying to move to the US. There are millions of Iraqi refugees in Syria. Syria has been very good to them, but the Syrians are not quite as gracious in their assesment of our involvement in Iraq. One told us that "they," meaning the Americans, destroyed the country "past, present and future." One Iraqi told us, "Before there was one criminal running the country, Sadam Hussein. Now there are hundreds of criminals and we don't know who they are." Another told us that Christians are now being persecuted in a way that they never were before, and indeed many of the Iraqis we met were either Chaldean or Syrian Orthodox. When you are here in this region and realize just what a different culture and mindset there is here, it is hard to imagine what would ever made President Bush and his team think that they could simply go in and depose a regime like that, for no legitimate reason. I couldn';t get the words out, but I wanted to say to young Mustafah, "I'm sorry. Not in my name."
That night the concert was at the Danish Institute, another beautiful large Damascene courtyard dating back to the 6th century. There was a fount in the middle, a raised stage area with a Persian rug underfoot and I was surrounded by candles. There was also large cool salons on either side of the courtyard, in one of which I sat and chilled out a little before singing. Acoustically, it was heavenly and I had decided to do a whole different kind of performance. I started with Clarence Rivers' spiritual styled "God Is Love" a capella, and then went right into "How Can I Keep from Singing." I even through "Put Love First" in there later in the concert as well as Rachel's Lament again, which seems more and more poignant.