“This is a place I would love to retire,” I once told AdventureMan, as we wandered the streets. “It has all the things I love. Beautiful architecture and a rich history. It’s on a river. It gets cold in the winter. You can walk to local stores.”
Today, with great sadness, I read that Damascus is now rated the #1 Most Unlivable City in the World, beating out Douala, Cameroon; Harare, Zimbabwe; Karachi, Pakistan; Algiers, Algeria; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Lagos, Nigeria; and Tripoli, Libya. This is what the report summarized about Damascus:
Damascus has forgotten more than your city will likely ever know-and it has been a battleground for almost its entire existence. The City of Jasmine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, the least livable city in the world-for good reason. More than 13 million Syrians require humanitarian aid, 6.5 million have been displaced, and almost half a million have been killed on all sides of the conflict there-government soldiers, opposition soldiers, and civilians. It’s scores are predictably abysmal, with a 15 (out of 100) for stability at the bottom end and a mere 43.3 for culture and environment at the top end.
This is a city which has been at the crossroads of civilization about as long as civilization has been around. This is a city which was refined, and tolerant, a city which was once full of caravans carrying spices, silks and riches to the West.
We were last there in 2007, and we are so glad we went when we did. Damascus was revitalizing, building up a tourism business with grand hotels, and lovely, intimate boutique hotels.
We stayed at the Talisman. We grieve for the fine people we met there, and for all the losses they have suffered.
AdventureMan said “why don’t you do a photo-share, like you did with Doha?” At first, I didn’t want to, but then, I looked at the photos – and once again, I was smitten. I pray for a miracle for Syria, for new, enlightened, tolerant leadership and opportunities for the good Syrian people. For renewed vigor in churches and mosques and synagogues there. (The Talisman is in the old Jewish quarter, where the Greek Orthodox also have their headquarters.)
This is the majlis – sitting area – at the Talisman.
A restaurant nearby the Talisman:
Breakfast at the Talisman:
The historical nearby Bab, or gate:
A nearby Tabak and the friendly operator:
A courtyard restaurant, with lovely dishes. And note the Christmas tree; Christmas decorations and greenery everywhere!
A Christian Shop near Bab Thoma:
Interior at Umayyad Mosque, all are welcome and abayas provided. You leave your shoes at the door. This is the rear of the Tomb of John the Baptist:
Naranj, our favorite restaurant. I understand branches of Naranj have opened in Gulf Countries, Qatar, Kuwait, as wealthier Syrians take their money out of Syria and wait for more peaceful times. I am betting they will return to Syria as soon as they can.
A merchant in the Souk al Hamidiyya
A courtyard restaurant set up for Christmas dinners:
I’ve never met a Syrian who wasn’t educated and working hard to make a good life for his/her family. We wonder if we will ever be able to visit Syria again in our lifetime?
Somehow, we go to bed around 8:30 pm and actually sleep. At 0215 we get our wake-up call as requested, and, as ordered, a beautiful breakfast shows up with a cheerful room service waiter, and we have coffee, tea and croissants as we hurriedly dress. We are to be in the terminal by 0300.
We are there by 0245, us and just about everyone else in our timing – Viking seems to attract those sorts, people who show up where they are supposed to be at the time they are supposed to be there. We are astonished to learn that there was a group ahead of us, they are just finishing up, and yes, there are a few pieces of luggage not claimed, so I guess not quite everyone made it on time.
We identified our luggage, which had been picked up outside our rooms the night before, watched as it was loaded into our assigned bus, and drove for about an hour to the airport. At the airport, there were baggage carts waiting, and we were able to check in very quickly for our flight. We are amazed and delighted; Viking truly has this down to a science. That’s not easy with 900 people disembarking on the same day. Kudos to Viking, even the smallest details are thought through.
As we signed in to the lounge, I said “Kalimeri,” which means Good morning, and the lady said to me “You’re Greek!” and I said no, I am not, but I got that a lot in Greece, I must have a Greek look to me. In truth, there is no Southern Mediterranean blood in me; mostly Scandinavian, French and Irish, or so Ancestry.com tells me.
We depart as the sun rises:
Everything is smooth until we get to Paris. We have to get to 2E, hall M. We know this drill; it’s the same as last year. “Oh no problem,” the “helper” tells us and hands us this paper with a map and directions:
You know what? I’m a map reader. I am really good at it. I navigate. We look closely; this map is useless. We start looking for signs and asking as we go, and we go quickly until we find the inner circle of hell, which is the passport line. We have priority passes, so we head to the priority line, but there isn’t even a line, and the real priority line is only for French citizens.
There is one huge shoving, desperate mass of people, all nationalities (except French) and then we find a secondary priority line, and every wheelchair goes to the front, and desperate passengers afraid they are missing their flight go ahead, and those who think they have the right push through, pushing their way in front of others. We are feeling desperate, too, our flight is in a very short time, but we don’t think the scramble to get in front of others is worth the price you pay in karma points.
I will tell you honestly, I have seen similar lines. Laborers in Kuwait lined up to get processed for residence visas. Refugees, desperate to escape violence and poverty, and afraid the gates will close before they get through. It is truly humbling to be a part of this line. Bread lines in which food is running out.
There is no one keeping order. The line inches slowly forward. It is like the end of times, everyone looking after his or her own needs regardless of others. There is little kindness to be seen in this line.
This is shameful. It’s not like this is unexpected. CDG needs to man their passport stations with enough personnel to allow these lines to flow quickly. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a bureaucracy which takes pride in their work.
This is not new; the planes wait, they take off a little later. We make our flight. As much as we love flying Air France, this experience is enough to make us re-think traveling through Paris.
Atlanta is straightforward. Our luggage, by the grace of God, is with us. We fly into Pensacola, and our son is there to meet us and take us home. All is well that ends well.
We remember while living in Germany, Hallowe’en was celebrated very differently; people would light candles and visit graves, and on All Saints Day, the following day, would take picnics up the the graves of their loved ones. Now, from store windows, it appears some of the American symbols have become accepted in Venice.
I keep telling you I am quitting, and I am not. Today, September 6th, ten years ago, I was sitting in my aerie in Kuwait, overlooking the Arabian Gulf, when I gathered all my nerve and went public.
I’d always wanted to write.
What better time? While every move was a great adventure, there was a downside. The downside is that it takes a while to gather your “band of brothers” (mine tend to be mostly sisters), your buddies, your protection against the inevitable rudeness of life. I was still reeling from leaving the strong band we had formed in Qatar (and still we are in touch, celebrating and protecting one another), and I was not yet sure where my Kuwait friends would come from.
I was in for a big surprise. I met wonderful friends through blogging. To the best of my knowledge, I am the last one standing of my blogging friends at that time; they were crucial to my investment in Kuwait, and the returns on that investment. I learned from them, I changed a lot of my thinking due to new ideas they introduced, and I profited greatly from our relationships. The friendships I formed in Kuwait rocked my world.
I was so scared, at the beginning, putting myself and my ideas out there. I loved the feedback I got, and get. I wanted a place to tell my stories so I wouldn’t forget them, and to ponder things I still don’t understand well. Your feedback and input are a great gift to me.
I still love sharing our trips with you, and, from time to time, puzzlements from my own culture. I’m still that little girl from Juneau, Alaska, a stranger in a strange land.
Thank you for a wonderful ten years. No, I am not planning to stop. I’ve had to be more patient with myself. Expat lives have spaces in them, time is different outside the United States, less full-all-the-time. I can’t blog the way I used to. I can’t quilt the way I used to. My time is full with AdventureMan, and grandchildren, and family, and church, and volunteer experiences.
We have a wonderful life, and we still get restless. We take two large trips a year now, to satisfy that wanderlust, and smaller trips to Mobile for Syrian food, to New Orleans for the escape and for Ethiopian food, to Atlanta to see friends, to Seattle to see family – and for Chinese food, to Panama City and Apalachicola for family and oysters. LOL, yes, there is a pattern. And meanwhile, we are surrounded by some of the best Gulf seafoods, and some of the best BBQ in the world, but man cannot live on BBQ alone.
Thank you for hanging in there for all these years, and for all the fun we’ve had together. Thank you for helping me learn about and understand the nuances, the deep underbellies of the cultures I otherwise would have skimmed over, never knowing the depth and richness I was missing out on. Thank you for your friendships, and for all the stories you have shared with me in the background that helped me see things differently. It’s you who have rocked my world, with your honesty and your bravery.
And while you are here, have some mint tea – yes, the mint is from our garden – and cake. Those Venetian ones are soaked in liqueurs, but there are some chocolate ones, and a gingered fruit or two . . . You are always welcome.
Who can help but think of “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice” as we listen to the daily news?
In today’s readings from the Lectionary, the first reading has to do with one of the earliest manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and this second reading ends with how the glory of God is for everyone, the Jew and also the Greek (of you might add, the American, and also the Moslem, or the Republicans, and also the Democrats), that God shows no partiality.
We all seem to shout “Go God!”, our own particular interpretation of God, and think that only we have it right.
What I do love, is that when a demented one kills in the name of God, the one true God rallies his true followers, whether in Syria, or Orlando, or Paris, or Nairobi, he rallies the hearts of his true followers to love one another, and to show that love by helping and serving one another, brother and sister, people of all colors and all nations and all religions and all sexes. God tells us to love him and to serve one another, and to leave all judgement to Him/Her.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters,* insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
2Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say,* ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed. 6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.11For God shows no partiality.
Enter another bible reference:
10 February 2011
Today the church remembers St. Ephraim, a very good man, a solid contributor to the early church. At a time when many seem to be in fear that Syrians are coming to our shore, I think a reading about Saint Ephraim is timely. He wrote some of the earliest church hymns. He very likely contributed some of the verbiage in our Nicene creed.
I also smile; I remember my Arabic instructors at the Qatar Center for the Presentation of Islam, truly gentle women who knew the bible better than I did, and inspired me to know it better in self defense. While they didn’t expect me to cover, i.e. to wear a scarf over my hair, or to wear an abaya, they could point out to me verses in the bible where women are instructed to cover, and they could show me biblical pictures in which the women were cloaked and their hair covered.
They also pointed out the many places in the Bible where praying was done by prostrating oneself face down before God, as Ephraim instructs in the prayer at the bottom of the reading.
I never felt pressured. They were like my Mormon sisters, my Baptist sisters; they only wanted me to have what they had found, the best way to worship.
EPHREM OF EDESSA
DEACON AND HYMN-WRITER (10 JUNE 373)
Ephrem (or Ephren or Ephraim or Ephrain) of Edessa was a teacher, poet, orator, and defender of the Faith. (To English-speakers, the most familiar form of his name will be “Ephraim.” It is the name of the younger son of Joseph, son of Jacob (see Genesis 41:52), and is thus the name of one of the largest of the twelve tribes of Israel.) Edessa (now Urfa), a city in modern Turkey about 100 kilometers from Antioch (now Antakya), was a an early center for the spread of Christian teaching in the East. It is said that in 325 he accompanied his bishop, James of Nisibis, to the Council of Nicea. Certainly his writings are an eloquent defense of the Nicene faith in the Deity of Jesus Christ. He countered the Gnostics’ practice of spreading their message through popular songs by composing Christian songs and hymns of his own, with great effect. He is known to the Syrian church as “the harp of the Holy Spirit.”
Ephrem retired to a cave outside Edessa, where he lived in great simplicity and devoted himself to writing. He frequently went into the city to preach. During a famine in 372-3 he worked distributing food to the hungry, and organizing a sort of ambulance service for the sick. He worked long hours at this, and became exhausted and sick, and so died.
Of his writings there remain 72 hymns, commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, and numerous sermons.
Several hymns are available at:
Among Orthodox he is best known for a fasting prayer:
THE PRAYER OF ST EPHRAIM THE SYRIAN
O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk. (prostration)
Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty, humility, patience, and love. (prostration)
Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen. (prostration)
(Twelve deep bows, saying each time: O God, be gracious to me, a sinner.)
[Translation by Fr James Silver, Drew University; posted on the Orthodox list]
by James Kiefer