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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rubaiyat Ramadan

From every place indeed... but mostly from Tartous, I wish you all a very happy Ramadan. Understandably, it's going to be a tough one this time around but look at it this way: this is the last "not extremely difficult" Ramadan for the next 10 years.

Muslims fast in Ramadan and abstain from eating and/or drinking from before sunrise till sunset everyday. For the unaware, Ramadan is a lunar month from the Hijri Calendar. Accordingly and since a lunar month is exactly 29 days 12 hours 44 minutes and 3 seconds long, lunar and solar years are asynchronous. A lunar year is roughly 11 to 12 days shorter. A lunar calendar, albeit having been used extensively in the past, is inherently impractical and was all but replaced by the more sensible solar calendar. It cannot be relied upon for any sort of planning, say agricultural for example, and is still in existence for mainly religious purposes. Over the centuries most lunar calendars have been modified into lunisolar calendars (a combination of lunar and solar) to compensate for the missing days. To this end, the Chinese, the Hebrew and the Hindu calendars have a variable number of months per year. A most ingenious scheme was adopted by the Farsi (Iranian) Calendar where a 13th month is added every 3 years. Alas, twisted political grudges and morbid theological inflexibilities rather than sound logical reasoning prevented Muslims from relying on this pragmatic solution. Think about it, Ramadan could have been fixed in say March of every year. You might wonder why I didn't choose December, being the solar month with the least daylight hours thus making fasting easier for everybody. Well, I couldn't ignore our Australian brothers and sisters down under. Their December is like our June and accordingly I chose a middle ground. Had I been in a position of power at any time during the last 1000 years, I would have made that brave decision. You and even the most rigid of adherents would have loved it and praised my wisdom and farsightedness. You are well aware that many of our national heroes and legendary religious figures have made much smaller and less courageous contributions yet have somehow managed to get a place on a pedestal we elected to erect for them in the middle of a cerebral desert.

Omar Khayyam's Jalali Calendar of 1079 is believed to be the real ancestor of the Farsi Calendar. If you don't know enough about Omar Khayyam and his exceptional value to the entire human race and if you have not read any of his Rubaiyat (quatrains) then do yourself a favor and learn about this exceptional man. Ramadan is a perfect time to read indeed. A superb work of fiction about Omar Khayyam with absolutely sound historical background and facts is Samarkand by Amin Maloof. It was originally written in French (Samarcande, 1989) by the famed Lebanese author but have been translated into all major languages. With all due respect, the works of Leonardo, Galileo, Dante, Shakespeare, Newton and Einstein to name but a few of the great ones, simply fade in comparison to the literary, scientific but most importantly human treasures of the great Khayyam. He was way ahead of his times. He's still way ahead of most of us.

Back to me, I am therefore I fast. Ramadan Karim to you all and may God, the loving and caring one of Omar Khayyam bless you with his mercy and overwhelm you with his generosity.

Monday, August 18, 2008

20 Years

Om Fares and I were to embark on our annual pilgrimage to Paradise. It was a little more extraordinary this year as we meant to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary in Ehden, Lebanon. We reserved a special room at the Hotel Abshi where we had spent the first few days of our honeymoon back in 1988. Back then, we had proceeded from Ehden to Los Angeles and subsequently to Tuscon, Arizona before we made it back home to Tartous. We're both in love with Ehden, a small town in Northern Lebanon. Situated at 1,500m on a mountain shoulder, it lies in perfect serenity on top of a perpetual bank of clouds. Nature endowed this magical place with beautifully amazing scenery. But it was a man who built a restaurant and placed it near Mar Sarkis, a spring gushing out of the mountains and appropriately named it: Ferdos or Paradise.

Ultimately, fate had it that we couldn't make it there. A horrific explosion in Tripoli, Lebanon on the morning of our departure killed 20 innocent souls, maimed scores of guiltless passersby and of course brought our plans to an abrupt end. I was going to tell you about Paradise but I'll leave it till another day. Since marriage and real life are nowhere close to being heaven, my story will take another twist.

It's been twenty years. We had good times and bad. We shared many blessings and misfortunes. We brought to life three wonderful kids. We gave up a hundred unrealized dreams. We made plans then changed them then made other plans then changed them again. We climbed and stumbled but went on. We laughed and cried. We fought and made up. Through it all, however, we kept our promises as we had the common sense to keep them small. Come evening, we were always back, friends and lovers for life.

Leaving our insouciant kids behind, we jumped in the car and headed in the direction of Wadi Al-Nassara (Valley of Christians). In order to remove any religious connotation and maintain its secular policy the government chose to rename it as Wadi Al-Nadara (Valley of Freshness). But you can't change history at the whim of an enlightened or benighted decision maker and accordingly the region is known to all, to its native inhabitants and to visitors alike by its original name only, the stunningly beautiful Wadi Al-Nassara, Valley of Christians.

Om Fares and I are very different indeed. Her idea of fun calls for practicality and organization. She is the type who enjoys the destination and considers the trip as an unavoidable requisite. She appreciates the panoramic landscape but under normal circumstances can't wait to really get where she's going. I, on the other hand, often tend to forget all together where I'm heading to in the first place. I don't mind to alter my road, extend my excursion or bring it to an immature end on impulse. As Om Fares knew that I must've been deeply disappointed about the cancellation of our trip to Ehden she gave me some leeway and unbounded my impetuosity. 50 kilometers southeast of Tartous we exited the main highway leading to Homs and headed north. The valley is dotted by small villages and towns, each boasting a church or a monastery ranging in size and prominence from the splendid to the self-effacing. Unguided and unconcerned we followed the bends of the winding road. As we approached each village I made a happy announcement (to Om Fares) that we would finally eat somewhere there. To her, I must've sounded like a lost captain trying to reassure his passengers that he knows where the hell he's going. Between you and me, I didn't care at all. I just wanted to prolong the voyage as much as feasible. Like usual, Om Fares had to eventually step in. "I'm very hungry", she said. "It's already 3:30 pm and your invitation was for lunch if I'm not mistaken". I looked right, left then straight down the road where I glimpsed an arrow underneath some Arabic writing. The sign read: Hotel Francis –Restaurant and Pool. The SUV climbed laboriously up the steep incline, twisting and turning through a series of hairpin curves before we finally made it into a flower-adorned parking lot. The restaurant was packed with a jubilant crowd. We were asked by the waiter if we were invited to the baptizing party. "We're not", I replied, "we can come back another time". "But of course not, please follow me to this lovely table right at the edge of the precipice. You will have a commanding view of the valley below and the party herein". The crowd was lively. Food and Arak flowed un-restrained. The dance floor was bustling with the young and old holding hands and swaying with the rhythm in a traditional Syrian Dabkeh. It was a double baptizing of a brother and sister. Both were dressed with beautiful white outfits and made their daddy and mommy swell with pride and joy. The father raised his glass and saluted everyone, guests and strangers. We all replied with happy wishes to Johnny and Patricia.

Have I ever told you that Om Fares never drinks? She always keeps a tab of how many glasses of Arak I've had though. I told her that she must surmount this nasty habit of hers but to no avail. Over the years she had come to accept that my actual limit is higher than the one she had envisioned for me. Our quarrels over the fact that I drink and that she does not have become less frequent. Yet she still refuses to equate my acceptance of her abstinence with her approval of my indulgence. Oh well, women!

Hand in hand, we walked back to the car gingerly and merrily. She was ginger, I was merry. Just an instant before we stepped out of the restaurant, the priest who had earlier performed the baptizing ceremony and who of course was an invited guest had left. I was just about to zoom out of the parking lot when Om Fares and I took notice of him. I slammed the break and smiled at him. "Can we give you a ride Father", Om Fares asked. Without the slightest hesitation, he opened the backdoor and jumped in. He looked both ginger and merry. "Such a nice party...", she started. Women! They can't even start a conversation. "Good Arak, eh Abouna (Father)?" I looked sideways and knowingly with the intention of conveying to her that this is how you break the ice with a man of the cloth. To her, and as she told me later, I just sounded and looked drunk and stupid.

By the look of him he was in his mid-seventies. Father Youhanna was a diminutive man with a long white beard. But what struck me most about him as I kept glancing at him through the rear view mirror were his eyes. They shined with a profound sense of acceptance. We were Muslims we informed him but the gleam in the eyes never even flickered. I followed his left and right instructions as we plunged further down the dale. We were not heading to the famous Deir Mar Gerges as I privately suspected. Instead we found ourselves at the modest gate of a little church. The inscriptions indicated that it was the church of the Saydeh (Notre Dame St. Marie) and that it was founded in 1921.

In fact a very old chapel dating back to the 12th century was discovered in the early 1900’s by the locals in a thicket of shrubs and trees where we were standing at that moment. It was built by some pious European Crusader as a place of worship rather than extravagance. For centuries it remained invisible to all eyes until a solitary man collecting firewood stumbled on a large stone by chance. After the site was cleaned and reclaimed, the original structure became visible. It was and still is protected by two huge trees which are believed to have been blessed by the Virgin. As news of the miraculous church and trees traveled near and far, the locals pitched in and worked on restoring the small Minster with their own hands. The faithful expatriates were still not rich in their second chosen countries at the time. Nevertheless they sent modest donations until the tower was rebuilt along with a fence and a small garden. The first modern mass was thus performed sometime in 1921.

We accepted Father Youhanna’s invitation to visit his church. From somewhere in the folds of his robe he produced a huge ancient key, turned it in the antique lock and pushed back the wooden door. The olden hinges creaked with acquiescence as we entered a single room measuring less than 60 square meters. The basin where the children were baptized still stood by the altar. There was broken glass on the floor and spilt olive oil. The priest made a note that he ought to clean it after we leave. He asked us if we wanted to light any candle. Two, we agreed, one for Om Fares and the other for me. He blessed our 20 years then unassumingly recounted the history of his domain as he has been serving this church for his last 20 years. Before, he had served the Lord for 30 years in Bhamdoun, Lebanon to which he arrived from his original Syrian village near Hama as a young man. He’s been wearing a robe since. 50 years had changed Youhanna into an older man but he was blessed with assent and contentment. This is where he performed baptisms beyond remembrance. He has done his best to ease the pain and suffering of hundreds of dying men and women. He has bonded couples in holy matrimony, witnessed the spring of new life, endured the scourges of summer, embraced his loneliness in autumn as the émigrés left back to their (forever) second homes and is anticipating the promise that winter is around the corner for him. He can rest in peace one day knowing that he has done his best in the service of his beloved church.

He promised to visit us on his first call to Tartous. We agreed that we will ride together to Deir Blemmana near Banias, a mystical shrine kept by his sisters the nuns. Om Fares voiced her wonder. "He’s a good man no doubt, but I can’t really understand you. I know your deep-rooted aversion to Muslim Sheikhs and Christian Priests, yet you and Father Youhanna got along so nicely". "He’s poor", I answered matter-of-factly. When a man of God develops an affinity for power and money he loses not only his credibility but his actual raison d’être.

Thus was our celebration of our 20th anniversary, unassuming and spontaneous. We didn’t make it to Paradise but instead found tremendous pleasure in the company of each other. So much like the last 20 years of our lives.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Betty and Mahmoud

I'll be quick to announce that this post is one of the most contentious pieces I've ever written. Mind you, I stated the above without actually scribbling a single word. Ever since Betty contacted me a few days ago and dropped her heavy load on my doorsteps I've been thinking what and how to answer. I replied privately to her email message and asked her to give me permission to post both her question and my answer. I also wanted her to provide me with some details so that my inherent biases and notorious simplification of grand issues are somehow subdued. She obliged by pointing a mental flashlight toward various obscure corners of her private story. She was abundantly candid about voicing her concerns in a series of pin-point surgical questions. Yet her admirable effort made my task harder. To be, as she expects of me, truly honest, not only am I going to step on a few toes but I might run the risk of paralleling Dr. Phil's patronizing methodology.
I warned Betty from the outset that she might've chosen the wrong person. She offhandedly dismissed my reservation by simply saying: "You being a regular guy is exactly why I chose to speak with you about my relationship".

How do you feel about an American Christian woman dating and marrying a Syrian Muslim man? That was how I came to know about Betty and Mahmoud.

The question cannot be answered in an unfussy manner because it is a combination of several clear and hidden inquiries. Luckily though, Betty is asking about my opinion here and nothing more. So in a way I'm free to say whatever I please, although I will keep it to the very end. The difficult part of the question lies in the fact that it mixes religion and nationality together. This needs a little exploration then adequate explanation. To put Betty at ease I can start right off by saying that it really doesn't matter much whether the Syrian man is a Muslim or a Christian. It matters, however, where in Syria he comes from and what kind of family background he carries on his shoulders. Syrians, Muslims and Christians, are generally more traditional than Americans. This does not and should not have any positive implication or negative connotation to either Syrians or Americans. Our political, social and economic present in Syria is so vague, our future so uncertain we can only look back for reassurance. We feel safe in the pleasant knowledge that we are descendants of great civilizations and that, like a human heart, blood carrying timeless cultures, sciences and arts passed through this land and was diffused again to the rest of humanity. With a little over a couple of hundred years of true history to show, Americans have no choice but to shape their present and invent their future with great ingenuity and resilience without as much as glancing back. It's much easier that an American Christian woman dates and marries a Syrian Muslim man than a Syrian Christian woman doing so. Let's hold on to that thought so that I move to one of your more explicit questions.

How is life for Christians living in Syria? I know they are a minority there, but how are they treated as far as citizens of the country? Are they treated differently? Is the government fair to them?

Life is just about the same for Christians and Muslims in Syria. The government is fair to none. I truly don't believe that Christians are troubled much by their religion. As a matter of fact, it has been easier to be a practicing Syrian Christian than a practicing Syrian Muslim in the last 30 years or so. A devoted and pious Christian doesn't pause any political threat to the authorities and accordingly has been left un-harassed. While civil institutions like the Boys Scouts for instance, founded by Muslims were all shut down, church established societies and activities were not only preserved but as a matter of fact supported. Syrian Christians could be as traditional as Muslims when it comes to the virginity of their daughters and sisters, to answer yet another of your questions. It's generally not acceptable for Syrians that girls lose their virginity outside wedlock (from now on Syrians include Christians and Muslims). That of course doesn't mean that this rule is not being broken or ignored, especially in the larger cities. However, the stand on virginity and extramarital sex in Syria is not that different from rural Greece, Southern Italy or even many parts of Latin America. Clandestine extramarital sex is on the rise. It's not socially acceptable but I'll be a fool not to admit that within 50 years or so a Syrian virgin would be as hard to find as an American one.

Is it religious or cultural influences that are responsible for violence against women in Syria?

Both are, among other factors. We should not ignore the importance of the same causes that inflict the West like socioeconomics and education. Men who are physically violent with women share traits that trespass national and cultural backgrounds. Unfortunately we lack valid social statistics in Syria, not only on this issue but on almost everything else. It is my belief that the numbers, figures and percentages are very similar all over the world with the exception of a very few countries. You should well understand my dear Betty that Syria is not Saudi Arabia. I, among millions of Syrians, could identify more readily with Americans than Saudis. We might not like your current and most of your previous administrations but we also detest their mutated, malformed, and misbegotten form of Islamic theocracy. No! Women are not stoned to death in Syria. Had it ever happened? Perhaps it did: a couple of times in the last 1,000 years.
Syria is as safe as America is to you. I could've told you that Syria is much safer, which by the way is true. People, regardless of their nationality, could walk the streets of any Syrian city at any hour, day or night, without fear of being physically assaulted. You might, as a woman, hear stupid and harassing words of alleged admiration in certain instances on a crowded street in Syria but they wouldn't be more than what you'd expect to hear had you been passing by a construction site full of working men in Manhattan.
I know of several successful American-Syrian and European-Syrian marriages. I also know of a few that ended up in divorce leaving behind embittered children. I have previously written about my views regarding some requisites of a successful marriage (Asking for a Hand). I will probably write again and soon on the same subject. When a rare inter-faith marriage does take place in Syria it usually is a great success. The couple has defied all odds, taboos and norms and they could've only done so through unbending love to each other. Yes, I know of several cases of Syrian Christians and Muslims intermarrying and leading very happy lives with or without the blessing of their families.

Generally what is the Syrian view of Americans and America?

This post will be read by other Syrians who might agree or disagree with me. They can do you a great favor if they comment on your questions and my answers and share their opinions with both of us. I have repeatedly stated that some of my best friends are Americans (Memories of America). I like some Americans as much as I like some Syrians. I also dislike many on both sides. Generally speaking though, Americans as a group are closer to my heart and mind than many other crowds. My extreme dislike, disappointment and resentment, however, are directed toward American foreign policy and the injustice it keeps inflicting on people all over the world. What this current American administration did to Iraq and its people is not to be taken lightly. What successive American administrations did to the Palestinians is a shameful act, a crime against humanity. They may have not been the direct perpetrators but they were accomplices to the Israelis all along. History, eventually and even if written by the winners, will not neglect to condemn the atrocities and absurdities committed by American forces for the alleged protection of the freedom of their homeland. On this particular point, the majority of the 6 billions humans living on this planet agrees with me. Syrians, like many others, are intelligent enough to distinguish between the actions of the American government and the American people. We, in Syria, are suffocating from lack of political freedom and a total absence of free press. You, in America, are drowning in the mediocrity of your incongruous democratic system and the deception of your biased media. Finally Betty, and as far as your direct questions are concerned, you wanted to know why I write in English. In order not to repeat myself, let me direct you to this old post of mine, titled appropriately enough (Why Do I Write in English).
Now comes the simplest yet most difficult part of my task, to give you my personal opinion about your relationship with Mahmoud. You have given me some private details which should remain so. I have asked you to tell me where Mahmoud comes from and a little bit about his family background. This is where I'm going to step on toes as foreseen in the beginning of this long article. The cultural difference between Mahmoud's background and the average Tartoussi's, between Mahmoud's city and Tartous is as huge as the difference between Tartous and New York City. You see Betty, Syria is a jigsaw puzzle of miniature mosaics. Unlike the United States where conformity bridges the distance between Henderson, Louisiana and Chicago, Illinois, Syria is very much varied and diverse. Where Mahmoud comes from is a world apart from mine. I have been there and cannot convincingly say that I can survive in that part of Syria for over 48 hours without a major nervous breakdown. I am being territorially chauvinistic I know but I owe you the obligation of speaking my mind. Mahmoud might be able to adapt and live happily in America but the opposite is not true, in my opinion. You will not be able to live in Mahmoud's town as a married woman without giving up a part of your identity, if not all. I know of many Americans who live permanently in Damascus and are very happy. Damascus is a wonderful metropolis and so is Aleppo. But I really can't see an American man or woman living in Tartous happily for the rest of their lives. There are a few of them in addition to Westerners from other nationalities by the way but they are the exception rather than the rule. You would not stand a chance in Mahmoud's town, of this I'm most certain.
I hope I didn't bore you to death. I tried to be as brief as possible with very little success evidently. Give yourself and Mahmoud a chance. Don't think of him as a Syrian or as a Muslim but just as any ordinary guy. Is he Mr. Right? Is he the one whom you truly love and desire? Do you see yourself spending the rest of your life with him and growing older together? Does he make you laugh, does he make you happy, does he make you think? Do you miss him when he's not around? Is he the one you want to see in the morning, every morning? You alone have answers to these questions. You should also keep in mind that divorce has unfortunately become an acceptable option regardless of culture, nationality or religion. If you approach your relationship in any other manner you are very likely going to be disappointed.

I wish you the best of luck and thank you so much for confiding in me.