18 days for 11 years of absence : a spiritual discovery that changed my vision of Middle East

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

By MORGAN ABBAS for Arab Student Organization

 11 years after, I finally reconnect with a land that is as familiar as unknown to me. Maybe I underestimated the power of time. What do 11 years represent on the time scale of our humanity  ? It’s a grain of sand in a restless dune, a grain that, indeed, was enough to make the country of  civilizations, history, poetry, music, wealth, the one of blood, tears, pain and incomprehension. On my way, I deeply ask myself what I’m about to see, which Syria I’m about to discover. The one shown in the media, a pile of rubble that burns the soul alive ? Or the one where hope and courage take over fear and despair, the Syria I dreamed about ? As a high number of middle eastern countries that saw their destiny impacted in such a radical way , I could describe Syria as a volcano where intertwine chaos, courage, resistance and last but no least resilience. Yes resilience …

“We defer to God” 

I was subjugated by the way people continued leading their way of life: dancing, singing,  laughing, loving and living, transiting naturally from a funeral to a wedding, not reacting  anymore to the sounds of shells and missiles as long as they don’t land on their heads. All that,  despite the war, the normalization of death, the exorbitant prices, and a lot of other factors that show the ambivalence between the conditions of a bruised country and the intrinsic and surprising  spirit of humanity that get used to everything. Because yes, it would have been erroneous from me to reduce a nation to those facts. The depth, the authenticity and the wealth of a nation have their  roots in several centuries of history , in the plurality of civilizations that all participated in the  construction of its multidimensional identity, in the societal mixtures that have led to a diversity  of consciousness and communities (not necessarily in a negative sense), in the succession of politic and economic schemes that   forged in a more or less exacerbated way the societal landscape.

Mâloula, one of the last villages where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is spoken, is the perfect example of an ethnic and religious rainbow: a myriad of Christian monasteries of different branches meet in harmony. Meeting one of the nuns that was abducted by Al-Nosra in 2013 make me realize that this episode did not change in any way the serenity of this place or the benevolence of the religious, it may have been strengthened. But here again, the ambivalence between visible and invisible is felt: inside, a spiritual power witnessing the historical weight of the place, outside, a war field reminiscent of human stupidity and its destructive tendency.
The village of Mâloula, in the West side of Syria Damascus, oldest capital in the world, cultural and religious centre by excellence, has been home of an impressive civilizational diversity: Arabs, Romans, Greeks passing by Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids or Aramaeans. While visiting the imposing Umayyad Mosque, I realize the presence in the same place of the Saint Jean-Baptiste tomb, as its name indicates the Umayyad legacy through this magnificent architecture, but also a wall of an ancient temple dedicated to Jupiter. This shows that seeing Middle East or the Arabic world in general (the term “Arabic” can also be nuanced) as a monolithic bloc is equivalent to essentializing it and ignoring its particularities and specificities which actually make its authenticity.


When I first arrived with my brother, the emotional power of reuniting with people who were almost unknown to me but who paradoxically were part of my being all this time, I knew their existence and they knew mine, was such, that silence said more than words could have. Everything was expressed in the overwhelmed and deep looks, in the tears that couldn’t stop flowing, in such a grateful attitude. Because this time, the dune stopped for a few moments, this is what we call a moment of pure happiness out of time.


But any moment of happiness is fleeting so 18 days after , in this same place and in this particular context, saying goodbye to your loved ones is a hurtful and difficult ordeal, because it suddenly reminds the fragility of this goodbye that can turn into a nod to a farewell: the power of time in a war country… They are dreaming of a better life too but they are caught in a spiral without exit : they can’t leave, maybe they don’t want to, because they are the actors of change, they are the essence of the country, they are sources of hope and sources of testimonies for the rest of the world… Yet we tried, and my grandfather just said:


“Homeland is like your wife, when she’s not well you do not abandon her to look elsewhere”


So, once again, they appeal to their resilience so that the grain of sand doesn’t fly away.

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