On Thursday the 18th of April 2019 I was finally able to visit Damascus, a city where many of my dearest relatives and friends live, after a 9-year absence. Above all I came to visit my maternal grandmother with whom I share a special bond. She is the root for my love for Damascus.
At around 4pm in the afternoon once I crossed the Lebanese/Syrian border in a taxi, I sat up and looked outside. I was wondering if the road and countryside would look different. The grass and trees were greener and lusher than I remembered, the winter had brought heavier than usual snow and rainfall. It was also spring, but many Syrians joke that the “spring” was the source of the disaster that befell their nation.We entered Damascus through an area known as “Mezzeh”. It was unchanged. As far as I could see the only difference is that there were several new restaurants and cafés. From the western edge of the city we drove to the eastern edge. Fortunately those areas looked unaltered. I knew that the buildings had been hit by opposition missiles and that sadly there had been casualties, but it seems the residents had repaired their homes.For those who love history Damascus, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. However it is not an archaeological ruin but within its ancient walls still live the descendants of its first inhabitants whose blood has inter-mixed with every civilisation and culture which followed.I was overjoyed to be able navigate the streets of Damascus and see it’s people living peacefully after having suffered the horrors of war. My long-awaited return was made even more special as it coincided with ‘Holy Thursday’ or ‘Maundy Thursday’. Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum meaning mandate, as some believe Christ gave his followers a mandate “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”Damascus is home to one of the world’s oldest community of Christians where I would imagine many of the rituals that Christians worldwide practice today originated.
That evening sometime around seven thirty (I say sometime because I was far too excited to notice the time or waste a moment glancing at my watch but I did notice the sun beginning to set) I set off to visit seven churches on foot as was customary on Maundy Thursday with my relatives. This took me back to being a teenager when this pilgrimage for me was primarily about seeing people and being seen.
The first church we visited was the Lady of Fatima Syriac Catholic Church. The flood lights that lit up its façade gave it a beautiful celestial glow that I never seem to have noticed before. The girl guides and boy scouts lined up at the left and right of the entrance holding the collection boxes. They were a joy to look at in their neat uniforms. They all had a badge of the Syrian flag on their chests. I joined the throngs of people entering the church. Inside the mass was in progress and the church was packed . I joined those standing at the back simply because there was no place among the pews. I looked around at the congregation, which was made up of both young and old, religion here was not reserved to the elderly. I was happy to see this display of resilience in the face of tragedy, everyone out in their ‘Sunday Best’, woman wearing make -up and their hair smartly done at the hairdressers.
It was shortly after leaving ‘The Lady of Fatima’, my mother’s cousin Nabeel and his wife Rana began discussing with me the severe petrol shortage as we continued walking to our next destination. Throughout my visit this was every one’s main topic of conversation a bit like Brexit in the UK. Nabeel and Rana lived in a newer area of Damascus and unlike the older parts few amenities were in walking distance but as I said everyone was concerned. This lack of fuel didn’t just affect the movement of people but also the transportation of goods.
Time and time again I was told “Taxi drivers have to work alternate days. So, they work one day then the next they have to spend the entire day queuing for petrol.”
Everyone in Damascus knew these were the results of Trump’s sanctions. They would say to me “It’s the average person who suffers most who has nothing to do with the government or politics.”
Many of the more politically inclined Christian Syrians will tell you they believe it’s in US interests to force the Christians of the Middle East, who have lived there for 2 millennia, to emigrate. It already happened in Iraq after the 2003 US lead invasion of that country. They believe it is happening now in Syria. Removing the Christians from the Middle East makes it far easier to propagate the “Clash of Civilisations” theory, “It’s them against us”.
I spent about 20 mins in ‘The Lady of Fatima’ enough to watch the priest washing the feet of the alter boys as Jesus washed the feet of his apostles. Christians believe Jesus did this so that his follower may follow his example of humility.
From there we crossed Aleppo street and walked down Kassa street, the main shopping area of a predominantly Christian area outside the old city. The pavements were over crowded with people that spilled over on to the street but there were few cars driving along.
Before the end of Kassa street we reached the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Kyrillos. It was a repeat of “The Lady of Fatima”. The only difference was that Kyrillos, as the locals called it, was glowing a mystical red colour. I wondered whether red was chosen because it was the colour of blood?
After leaving Kyrillos we walked to Burj Al-Ruus en-route to our next destination which was within the ancient city walls. There I stopped a moment to look and photograph a flower shop which was beautifully decorated for Easter. On a large stand it had many candles on display decorated with dainty colourful ribbons. It was traditional for children to carry these candles while circling the church on Palm Sunday.
I had always known the name of this area but for the first time ever I asked about it. I was ignorant of the history and I had thought that Burj Al-Ruus meant ‘Tower of Russians.’ Nabeel smiled and explained that Burj Al-Ruus meant “Tower of Heads”. In 1401 Timurlane sacked Damascus and massacred its inhabitants. It is here they say the severed heads were piled. Damascus would recover from this foreign invader’s sadistic cruelty as I hoped that it would recover from its current devastation.
We entered ‘Old Damascus’ through ‘Bab Touma’ or ‘Thomas’s Gate’ . A geographical landmark of Early Christianity, which was named after Thomas the apostle who had resided in the eponymous quarter of Damascus just behind it. I found the site of ‘Bab Touma’ breath- taking. It is one of the seven gates by which travellers would have entered the city. The city walls of Damascus dated back to Romans times. Before the Roman Empire accepted Christianity, this Gate was known as the gate of Venus, the goddess of love. In this ancient city I could see and feel layer upon layer of history.
The streets of Bab Touma were full of life and the narrow winding alleys were so crowded that from time to time I couldn’t avoid bumping into people. On both sides the alleys were lined with small stores selling all kinds of wares. Most people were here to visit the many ancient churches, convents and cathedrals all a stone throw from one another.
We visited churches, cathedrals and monasteries, Armenian, Maronite, Catholic, Orthodox and Syriac. Perhaps Damascus was only second to Jerusalem in having so many Christian rites and their representatives in such close proximity to each other. The pilgrims belonged to different churches and ethnicities, but the Syrian flag was the constant they all shared. Inter marriage was routine and widely practiced.
It wasn’t possible to set foot in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Dormition which was absolutely packed. I got as close to the gate of the courtyard as was possible. I could see a large stage and I could just make out the children standing on it and preforming. The term ‘Dormition’ is only used by Eastern and Oriental Christians. In the Western Catholic Church the term ‘Assumption’ is used. I find it interesting that this belief came to Western Europe from the East even though there was no mention of it in the Bible, but I assume it was transmitted through word of mouth.
The Armenian Catholic Church we visited was attached to a primary and senior school. Sadly, on the 13th of November 2013 a mortar fired by the opposition fell by the main gate of the school, and two other mortars fell on the school buses parked by the gate. Five were killed, the youngest victim was a 6-year old school boy. I believe it is the innocent who suffer the most during times of war.
Between church visits in Bab Touma we passed Beit Zaman Hotel and I decided to have a look inside. Before the war boutique hotels converted from old Damascene homes and palaces were thriving. The war had a terrible impact on these hotels. The inside of Beit Zaman Hotel was beautiful with its traditional ornate furniture inlaid with mother of pearl and a marble fountain in the centre of a large court- yard. The receptionist, Tala Fatra was kind enough to offer to show us around and tell us about the history of the building. Before we left, I inquired about the occupancy rate of the hotel. I was happy that according to her, last week the hotel had 100% occupancy. She said their guests had been from several European countries including France, Italy and Spain.
It was past ten o’clock when we had finished visiting our seventh and final church and exhilerated I headed back to my grandmother’s home.
Good Friday, Friday 19th of April
I spent my Friday morning and afternoon with my grandmother and other relatives. It was grey, cold and rain poured down from the sky most of the day. My second cousin Roula said emphatically “The heavens are weeping. This is truly Good Friday”.
In the early evening Nabeel and Rana would be driving us across town to attend mass at the Catholic Church of Saint John of Damascus in Abu Rummaneh. I really appreciated their gesture as due to the petrol shortage people were refraining from using their cars except in times of emergency.
We drove through the central commercial district of Damascus. Traffic was very light which could have been due to the fuel shortage or because it was Friday which is a weekend and almost all stores and business are shut.
Just after we passed the Syrian parliament building, we noticed the good Friday procession “Christ’s Funeral” translated literally from Arabic. Nabeel parked immediately so I could watch. It was coming out of the Latin Church of St. Antoine which is on Parliament street. The police had stopped what little traffic there was so that the procession could easily proceed.
This one was the first of three I would be watching today. First came a girl guide leader carrying a Syrian flag marching slowly followed by another carrying the Vatican flag and by the boy scouts’ leaders carrying banners. Then came the boy scouts and girls guides drummers marching in unison. Beating on their drums as hard as they could, creating a hypnotic single beat rhythm. Next, came the trumpets. After them were the alter boys dressed in white robes adorned with a single red Jerusalem cross on their chest. One carried a pastoral staff and another a lantern. Obviously, symbols of guidance. Behind them was carried the symbolic coffin of Christ made of flowers. Finally came three priest wearing red robes and about a dozen nuns.
Passers-by stopped to look and take pictures, among them Muslim women wearing head scarves. It was an impressive spectacle regardless of your religion. While I stood watching Rana turned to me and said “You’re lucky, this is the first year since the unrest started that they march in the street. Last year they marched inside the Church because it wasn’t safe.”
Having finished watching the procession we continued to the Catholic Church of St. John of Damascus in Abu Rummaneh. Here we attended the mass. Followed by an almost identical procession as the one I described at St. Antoine. Rana and Nabeel’s children were marching in this procession and so I concentrated mostly on them.
After the procession I noticed the parish priest standing outside surrounded with many parishioners waiting their turn to speak to him. Although he was a Roman Catholic priest, he was dressed as I would expect an Orthodox priest to be – here I must note I am no religious expert. I waited until I got a chance to introduce myself with the help of Nabeel and asked if I could take a picture of him to which he agreed. He gave me his name and title, Archimandrite Jean Hanna. Some might consider it a sort of paradox a Catholic priest using a title of the Orthodox clergy with a French first name an Arab second name. Both Jean and Hanna would be translated into English as ‘John’; an example of the overlapping of cultures common to the Levant.
I was looking forward to going to the Ghassani area in Damascus. As a teenager this was the place we congregated to celebrate Christmas and Easter. At around 8 pm we met Roula there in the street. We stood where she told us we would get the best view of the procession of the “Funeral of Christ”. This one differed from the first two. It attracted a huge number of spectators and was on a much larger scale. It was night time and the scouts and guides carried burning torches. The most dramatic part was larger than life 4 metre burning cross. It took almost an hour for the entire procession to pass us.
Once it was done, I became aware of how cold this night was and I couldn’t wait to get home yet the cold had not kept people away.
Saturday 20th of April
Today the preparations for Easter Sunday began. For me this meant going to buy chocolate Easter eggs and getting a manicure.
On Rana’s advise I went to a beauty salon called ‘Caramel’. While I waited for my appointment to start I had the opportunity to speak to the owner of the salon Carole, 34. I was surprised to hear that Carole had only opened her salon two months ago. I asked her about her business and what she had done before opening a beauty Salon.
“My business is going fine so far thank God. I was working as a social worker before I started Caramel. The stress level was very high, and it was incredibly draining. It just reached a point where I decided I had to do something else”, she explained.
I only had time to ask her one other question which was, what she thought was the greatest problem her country faced? She didn’t need any time to think “All our talented people have left. Our people are smart and skilled but so many have left. My father needs an operation, but we can’t find a doctor who can do it. We the people of Syria face a terrible future if this situation continues”.
It was time for my manicure to start and the young lady doing mine had a lot to say. Her name was Leila. I would say she was in her late twenties with beautiful large black eyes. “I am never scared to say what I think. I support those young men who left to avoid military service. What future would have faced them if they stayed? Abroad they can find work and make enough to live on. We saw terrible times during the war. There was a shortage of everything! Even bread. I blame the merchants who piled up the grain in the store houses. There was a time we had no food in our kitchens. If I had the chance, I would travel abroad so I could make some money and secure my future, but I would return. Despite this I have always been and continue to be a great supporter of the Syrian regime”.
I admired her forceful personality, her outspokenness and sincerity.
I had the pleasure of meeting one other very intelligent young lady at Caramel and that was Karine, 26. She works in child protection with a non-governmental organisation. Karine had graduated with a degree in Pharmacy which made me ask her why she wasn’t working in her field of study.
“I used to volunteer with the red crescent when I was still at university. I discovered I got great satisfaction from working with children and this is why I do my job.”
I asked about the children she worked with and the troubles they faced. “I work with street children. They are abandoned because they are orphaned or because after their father dies their mother leaves them so that she may remarry”.
I interrupted her at this point “Really you have worked with children who were abandoned by their mother?”.
“Yes, many times. Street children have no access to education or health care, they are exploited as child labourers, many develop substance addictions. (During this visit I heard about the topic of street children glue sniffing and how prevalent it was, but this was something I had never heard about before the war). Even after we take these children in our shelters many run away. This happens for two reasons. First, they become accustomed to street life and as a result see the shelter as restricting their freedom, secondly our staff do not have the field experience to deal with these children.
I feel our government is not giving this crisis the attention it deserves. I will give you an example. We let the children put on their own play which depicted the struggles they face on the street. We invited people from the relevant ministries. No one from the ministries came to watch”.
Her conclusion “A huge crisis looms for this country in the near future when the neglected war generation of children reach adulthood”.
These three women all had different levels of education and came from different social backgrounds, but I respected and admired them. I thought this country would be better off if it was run by women like them.
Easter Sunday, 21st April
Easter Sunday my relative Roula invited me along with the extended family to her home for Easter lunch. We were fortunate to be able to enjoy a wonderful family celebration.
Roula’s husband was an interesting personality. He was the first in his family and the only one of his three siblings to receive a university education. He did not come from a wealthy or political family. He did not care for politics and he was not involved in any way. Of my relatives in Syria he was the most economically successful ie had made the most money (Syria’s economy had been flourishing before the war). He is a member of a native religious minority who has for decades had absolute freedom to practice their religion. What did the war mean for him? His business suffered as result and intolerant fanatics were able to establish strongholds in his country where they committed atrocities against those who did not share their beliefs. In my opinion a minority of Syria’s population are politicized. For the vast majority this was a futile war which devasted the economy and brought destruction and death to their country.
Monday 22nd of April
Just past 6 am I was in the taxi that would take me to Beirut. It was a cold, crisp morning and in the distance snow -capped mountains were just about visible. These taxis that operate between Damascus and Beirut had not been affected by the fuel shortage. The drivers fill up their vehicles with petrol in Lebanon. The distance between Damascus and Beirut was only something like 60 miles.
I felt that I had only just arrived and already it was time to leave. There was so much I had not had time to do!
We began heading west through Damascus. The city was empty except for the long queues of cars at the petrol stations.
Once outside Damascus we were surrounded on all sides by numerous mountains completely covered in a think carpet of snow. The last few days had brought unseasonably heavy snowfall. It was the end of April after all. For confirmation I asked the taxi driver, Rafiq, who had driven this route almost daily for over the past twenty years if he had seen snow like this before to which he replied " I have seen even heavier snow but I have never seen this much snow in April!"
Perhaps this was an omen that a change would be coming. This year the water supply would be plentiful. This was good news for everyone but especially those who worked in agriculture that hopefully their crops would be bountiful.
I was both happy and relieved to see now once again the people of Damascus living their lives as they had done before the war. Easter celebrations were just as I remembered them. The churches were filled to the brink. The young men and women strutted proudly displaying their youthful beauty.
In my opinion if we look back at our shared human history we should be assured that justice always triumphs. The suffragettes, civil rights in the USA, the end of almost all European colonialism (with a few exceptions, ie the UK still refuses to relinquish the Chagos Islands and abide by the UN court's decision) and the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Yes, we should always be reassured in the end justice will triumph!
Nadia Aburdene © 2019