Christmas is Syria has certainly been an interesting experience. One of my favorite bits was when I had the opportunity to have my photo taken with Santa on his sleigh. instead of playing ‘silent night’ the speakers were blaring the music from that car advert a few year ago where the vircles transform and skate on a frozen lake. maybe Syria associates ice with Christmas. Maybe it just likes the tune.
Bab Tumas been xmas excited for ages now. the shops have been attempting to sell cheep, badly made, derivative Christmas decorations. Lots of the shops and cafes have Christmas trees and fake snow, which was really odd when Syria was a balmy 15 degrees. I think for westernized Syrians celebrating Christmas is a way of showing how sophisticated they are. Jesus is a major Muslim prophet, but Mezzah, the affluent suburb that the Mahad calls home has as many Christmas trees and snowmen as the Christian quarter.
I mainly spent Christmas eve learning Arabic. I had a privet lesson with my new teacher, who I don’t like who but has some seriously skilled alumni, then went to see R. I took a couple of beers round, and tried to explain the 46 Thorncliffe RD xmas experience to an incredulous but amused R. The Druze don’t really do religious festivals. We did get down to business eventually, but some how were still chilling, listening to good music that happened to be in Arabic, at 3am. Suffice to say I’d missed midnight mass at Mar Mousa.
At only 8.20AM I removed myself from The Fixers bed (hes gone home for Xmas) and started missioning it over to Mar Mousa, a monastery in the desert. While Monks moved into the surrounding caves in the 6th century they didn’t get round to building the church for another 5 hundred years or so. It was abandoned, but its ruins were rediscovered in the 80s by a Jesuit traveling with a seriously out of date guidebook. The setting is increadable, overwhelmingly empty desert for miles around. the monastery is at the top of a rocky hill, cut into by a wadi, which is bridged by the monastery at the top. impressed by the peace of the landscape and the 11th to 13th century frescoes he sat there communing with god for three days, then set about rebuilding it. Hes built up a community of monks and nuns, both catholic and orthodox which has raised some local eyebrows, and does lots of work bridging the divide between muslims and christians.
its quite an athletic hike up to the monastery. I got there at half 12, just as the monks were serving breakfast. i was still bewildered by the clean, beautiful peace of it after Damascus when Frenchy found me, got me a cup of tea, sat me down to eat and told me what I’d missed. aparently midnight mass had been in arabic, then theyed all gone outside at 12 and danced round a bonfire. In the morning the had been another service, again in Arabic, then everyone sat in the church in silance foir an hour. We all helped clean up. A German man at Mar Mousa for a year on sabatical must have taken a shine to me and Sophia; he let us feed the hens, which have a little cave to shelter in.
A novice took us to see ‘his’ cave, where he tries to live. He also showed us the ‘cave of the sleepers, ‘ which they try and have as a more muslim friendly prayer space, Then I went into the church. Sorry to sound hippyfied, but it felt really loving as well as calm. It was a bit like a mosque – you had to remove your shoos to enter and the was no furniture, just sheapskin rugs and upholstered back rests. the layout was mosque like as well, with a feeling of open space, despite the church’s small .size and heavy colloms deliniating the nave. the frescos were beautiful. painted over 150 years the latest ones had arabic spript and showed a strong muslium, almost persian, influnce. instead of an alter two beautiful bibles were laied on the floor surounded by candels and stary cloath. the was a man in there sat in a budist meditation pose, and the whole place was decorated for christmas with candels in coulored glass dangling from the celling.
At dinner, a sit on the floor eastern style fest, I met a couple who’d cycled from Scotland. they claimed they’d cheated – they’d taken a ferry from Italy to Turkey. They ate even more than I did. quite a lot of random kids I knew from the Mahad were there, as well as Frenchy, who I’d planned to meet. A couple of muslim family’s had come to celebrate Christs birthday as well, which was nice, but not altogether easy. liking silence and solitude are western phenomena (theres an Arabic saying ‘hell is being without other people’). the predominantly European crowd were annoyed by some of the Muslim children’s toys, which flashed brightly and made noises. while everyone would have happily told another westerner to behave better no one wanted to offend the Muslims, who had no idea that the was a problem. After dinner Father Pablo, who found Mar Mousa, expounded on his ‘clean hearts, clean toilets,’ philosophy. When the revolution comes toilets wont be cleaned by other nationalities for money, but by empowered people doing out of love. I wiped the ‘table’ mats, swept the pantry and vacumed the eating tent with a machine that looked more like a darlik than a hoover. I don’t know who won gods favor by cleaning the lavatory.s
after dinner I went back to the church, dark now apart from three candles hanging from the ceiling. Frenchy lit a candle from the side, and we sat contentedly gazing into the flame. we both felt though that we should go back to Damascus to do the things we needed to do and come back when we didn’t have any commitments in Cham. Father Pablo called us a taxi and we walked down to meet it. The desert was black but the sky was alive with stars.
we alighted from the servieece at Bab Tuma in time to catch the end of a Christmas concert in the new park that snakes along against the city walls. think big hair, poppy tunes and fully dressed up Santa clauses ringing plastic hand bells attempting to sell Christmas hats that flash the message ‘happy Christmas,’ across them in English. I’ve consequently got an Arabic language version of ‘Jingle bells’ lodged in my head. According to Mariki we’d missed a military style parade with children dressed up as Christmas trees.
My exams are now the third and fouth. confusion rages as to weather the second is a holiday. I’m not going to go back for a course there, and very few of my friends are either, but we are going to do ‘mahad Wednesdays’ and study there together, visit the coffee man, take advantage of the free wifi and see everyone.