A Syrian Christmas, 3000 feet up a mountain
The monastery bell wakes me at 7.30am – late for a monastery – and when I come down the shakey wooden stairs I find the day is already well ahead of me, the sky filling the world with a bright and brilliant blue. I’d forgotten that sunlight – and shadow – are so much a part of the mountain day.
There’s the usual crowd of Christmas orphans gathered here in Mar Mousa and though I only arrived last night, I’ve got to know quite a few of them already: the very fact of being here gives one carte blanche to ask everyone their business though I’d probably do that anyway. There’s the bubbly little American female from Texas, Sally, who had visa problems back in Hama and whose cute pigtails make her look like a girl-child though she’s a divorcee, travelling to forget her troubles. The marriage lasted three years and the best thing it gave her, she tells me, is her former husband’s grandfather – a Baptist minister.
Tommy is also from the States and used to own a string of ice-cream shops. I keep away from him because he tends to complain about small things and I don’t have any excess energy to waste on sympathy. Wilhem is a postgraduate law student from the Nederlands who speaks perfect English even to the extent of getting the intonations right. Then there’s a twenty-something curly-haired Mexican who tells me that most governments are corrupt though none as corrupt as Lula’s and Chavez’s which makes me wonder about his politics. He’s in banking and is coming to work in Syria next year. Why? Because both countries have oil, he tells me which throws some light on his political opinions.
“In Mexico,” he explains, “we have oil which we sell to the US and they refine it for us.”
“And then sell your own oil back to you, I suppose?”
“Yes. That’s it.”
He doesn’t see anything dumb in this and I’m not surprised. It’s how it works. In Ireland, Shell plans to buy off-shore oil from us, refines it and sell it back to us again – at market prices – though I can’t help thinking that some politicians must be waking up delighted to find an unexpected brown envelope under their pillow.
“The Sandanista must be thrown out,” the Mexican continues, warming to his idea.
“How?” asks Toby, a German who’s travelling with his girlfriend. They are both psychology graduates working in the field of psychiatric care and looking for somewhere in the world where the commune idea really works.
“The army,” the Mexican says.
“Not by democracy then?” asks Toby.
“No, the army. That’s what it’s there for. Soldiers have to be ready for everything. Look at Katrina. They brought in supplies and civil volunteers by air and then they set off in convoys with a tank at the top and a tank at the bottom.”
“Why a tank?” asked Toby but it was rhetorical: the Mexican saw nothing strange in all this militarism.
This is the second time I have come to Mar Mousa and each time, I approach it with a certain amount of superstitious dread due partly to a combination of things which include Paolo, the Jesuit priest who set up this neo-Christian community fifteen years ago, the forbidding aspect of the monastery building itself, its location and finally the religious ethos.
The monastery building was once a second century Roman fort and still looks like one, rising up from the plain below, its blank walls, sheer and grey, cornered with sharp angles that slice across the pupils of my eyes. From its ramparts, the soldiers of the Empire had a panoramic view of the wide flat expanse of desert far below and could monitor the huge caravan trains which passed beneath plying between Damascus and Tadmor and far beyond.
Outposts of empire are sad and lonely places and this is what I feel when I come here. Hacked out of limestone, the monastery is surrounded by mountains pockmarked with caves which became dwellings for the early Christians who moved in when the Empire fell. Desolation, the mindset of the hermit, lies everywhere.
The first time I came here, I bedded down in the dormitory wearing everything I had. My roommate was a postgraduate student doing her doctorate on the origins of Mar Mousa and seemed to carry on her shoulders more problems than she could cope with. One was that she sleep-walked and had to have a chair wedged against the door to stop her opening it in the middle of the night. Her other problem was Paolo who, though not her supervisor, seemed to control her every waking moment, deciding what work she should do and when, stipulating she should devote five hours a day to contemplation, not something a time-pressed doctoral student usually wants to do.
Paolo is certainly unnerving. In his fifties, bearded, with a bulky body that imposed itself on whatever space he entered, he had a loud voice and, at mealtimes, had a way of reaching across anyone for whatever he wanted at table. The Bhuddist precept – take only that which is given – was one I wanted to remind him of, finding it hard to equate all this unpolished physicality with the fact that he was a Jesuit and therefore, one assumed, an intellectual with a fairly sophisticated idea of self. He had adopted the headdress of the local men – a rolled up sausage of keffiyeh set like a pancake on his head – and harangued rather than talked to people. I took an instant if irrational dislike to him.
That first time, I slept badly, had nightmares, wrote a story in my head about waking up to find that I had gone back in time and that I was alone and trapped in this fearful place. After the second night, I lied to Paolo and said I had to return immediately to Damascus.
But Mar Mousa remained unfinished business for me and once home, its shadow continued to flicker at the back of my mind. I got the story down on paper, entered it in a competition for a ghost story where it was unplaced. Now, two years later, I’m here again perhaps to lay that ghost.
This time, however, it’s different. It’s Christmas and there’s an air of heightened expectancy to things. There are tiny pastries to be made for tomorrow night’s Christmas Eve party and we all sit around the communal table cutting, rolling and shaping the dough. For the first time in a long while, I am on the inside, part of a group. During Ramadan, it was the opposite. Always on the outside, I was a lone stranger peering into cafes where groups of Syrians were laughing and talking, gathered together to share the evening meal, the break fast.
Paolo joins us and sings Old MacDonald Had a Farm, in Arabic. I do my party turn – That’s Peggy O Neill – because it’s very short and everyone joins in enthusiastically: That’s Piggy-oooo-neel. A French woman sings Clair de la Lune so very prettily that Paolo pinches her cheek. Then Sally sings a song from her primary school days, girlishly as if she were still ten and I remember that at the beginning of the meal Paolo had admonished her for putting bread on the table rather than on a plate. He treats her like a child and she behaves like one.
But as I look around me, I know that the cosy feeling of one-ness is illusory. I am not part of a religion that includes in its daily practice the worship of a political leader and I feel ill at ease among people who appear so distant from this Arab land.
It reminds me of something I had previously found disturbing: the fact that the people connected with the monastery seemed safely removed from the world below where poverty and the politics of the Middle East make the future far from secure – except for those who believe they have a place guaranteed in the never-never land of eternity.
Now I find this was an unfair judgement. One of the nuns, an Arab from Damascus, has a degree in biology and is working on a conservation project which includes a much-needed waste disposal system which will serve both the monastery and the nearby town of Nabk. Paolo is engaged in building houses for people in Nabk though here I trip up in this season of good will: the houses are for the local Christians. This is hateful sectarianism. I say nothing but continue to roll and cut and shape and laugh so that everyone thinks I am the same as they are.
After a while, I slip away to have a look at the frescoes painted on the plastered walls of the church. The monastery is dedicated to Saint Moses ( Mar Mousa) who, in common with many saints is a multiple-personality saint and has at least two incarnations. Though they both originate in Ethiopia, only one was murdered ( martyred in religious parlance) his thumb preserved in the church in Nabk. The other Saint Moses travelled to Egypt and failed to leave any bits of himself lying around.
The best part of the frescoes is the one which depicts the day of judgement and is interesting because it shows a row of clergy who have strayed from the path of righteousness. They are identified by the black crosses painted on their white garments. Beneath them are more wrongdoers pictured with the things which indicate their sinfulness – a scales, a knife, some coins – so that we know the finger is being pointed at the judiciary, the merchant class and the bankers. Below them are those who are truly damned – naked people overcome by their sensory desires who have snakes emerging horribly from between their legs which then start to coil upwards into their various orifices. I feel the old shivers that used to overcome me as a child when warned that the flames of hell undoubtedly waited for children who lied, stole sweets or hit their siblings.
The church fills up for the evening service and Paolo, in a voluminous white gown and a black skullcap delivers his sermon in different modes: shouting and roaring in Arabic or talking quietly in English. I don’t follow it because I’m studying the congregation. There seems to be a certain sort of young European male who wears a Palestinian keffiyeh round the neck as a fashion item and who is attracted to Paolo’s brand of Christianity. The rest of the group are men and women of different ages though mainly in their twenties, some European and some Syrian, who light their candles, sip from the communal cup, sing along and read their bible when directed to do so by Paolo.
But it’s no good. Despite the peeling paint, the ancient prayers and the murky candlelight I simply don’t get a feel for the metaphysical, for that mystical moment when the water changes into wine. Or indeed into blood. And that might be the problem. The blood sacrifice is distasteful now that we live in the 21st century. I see no reason to deify Jesus. His philosophy and his political aspirations are good enough without tagging a religious cult on to them though of course, if you are a political activist – young and charismatic – one of the best things that can happen to you is to be arrested, executed and finally deified. What might have happened he had merely been imprisoned for life?
But this is no time for conjecture. There’s too much religion around and my feet are like ice, reminding me that we are 3500 feet up the side of a mountain. I get up to get the blood circulating again and push my way though the heavy curtain at the door. Outside, the clear sky is vibrant with stars each one throbbing like a heartbeat.
Next morning, Christmas Eve, the plain below has been submerged by a damp, rolling mist. The kitchen is full of last night’s dishes which I piously stack up but don’t attempt to wash: the water is too cold. One of the nuns arrives but doesn’t know how to turn on the gas stove. Nor does the pretty, dark-eyed helper who appears and starts to wash up using freezing water and won’t allow me to help: “ No, I’m used to it, ” she says. “ I work in a home for the mentally handicapped.”
The mist climbs up the side of the mountain, clawing its way over the parapet like a pre-historic swamp creature. I sit on the stone bench clutching my mug of tea to warm my hands but the cushion I’m sitting on is damp. So too are my trousers and my back is shivering. We all gather together, wrapped up in sweaters, woolly hats and scarves, following the sun round the courtyard and end by crowding into the last corner that gets its faint warmth before it disappears behind the mountain. The day loses its light early at this time of year.
The pastry making, the grating of the carrots, the peeling of the potatoes, the beating of the eggs continue all morning while visitors arrive and are welcomed with hot drinks and cakes. We are forty for lunch with twice that expected later.
It starts to snow wetly. Desert snow that’s not the right sort. I spend the afternoon in the women’s dormitory drying my socks on the oil heater.
When it’s dark, we make our perilous way up a mountain track to a large hall close to the nuns’ quarters. The way is difficult and uneven with the billowing mist bouncing off the beams cast by our torches. We walk in single file, guided by candles set into cracks in the rocks along the way. Someone decides to guide me by holding my hand which is more dangerous than helpful and I have to pull my hand out of theirs, noting there is a parable there waiting to be dealt with later when I have time to think about it.
Then we burst into the light, to a hall is full of crackers and colour. There’s a Christmas tree with real candles on it and a table laden with food. There’s drumming and clapping and people doing the hokey kokey – in Arabic. The party takes on the feel of a bizarre film set with one of the guests, a man who is paraplegic, dressed as Santa Claus, hoisted on to the shoulders of some of the men and carried round the room ringing a bell. It requires one man to carry him and two to walk behind supporting his back. A reporter from the Daily Star in Beirut, takes pictures and tells me, ominously that things in Lebanon are “simmering.” Just as I am about to serve myself some carrot salad, someone who prepared the food whispers to me that they grated the carrots until their knuckles bled into the mixture.I replace the serving spoon.
A Spanish man plays Spanish music on his guitar in a mediocre way and a Japanese woman plays soulful English carols on her violin which no one listens to: the drummers want something lively to drum to and she isn’t it. Paolo takes over on a drum and plays it without interruption, beaming at us all and failing to notice a man who whispers in his ear that there is a woman who is prepared to sing. This is Paolo’s style, unaware of any action unless he is the centre of it. And yet I feel a certain kindliness towards him. He is a big, ungainly man, full of energy and ambition, who has probably never known a woman, never felt the touch of a calming hand on his face nor himself stroked the cheek of someone he loved. He is a stranger to tenderness.
Next day, clambering down the mountain with Wilhem, he tells me he didn’t like Paolo and I nod my head. “ I asked him yesterday, ” he continues, “ if I could get on to the monastery internet to email a friend at the Dutch Embassy in Damascus and he said no. And then he said to me – why don’t you wash. Your clothes have a bad smell.”
This time I shook my head in disbelief. Wilhem does not form part of the great unwashed. In fact, he is a cut above the average backpacker and is planning on crossing over into Lebanon to do a bit of skiing there. Smell he does not.
Once back in Damascus, I make for the Cham Palace Hotel. In the spacious bar, a young woman in a backless, blue sequinned evening dress is playing the grand piano, accompanying another woman in a long red evening dress who is playing Songs from the Shows on the violin. The waiter brings me a bowl of nuts and I order a black coffee and a brandy. I have no trouble at all moving back into my Christmas comfort zone.
Since this book was published, Paolo was asked to leave Syria by President Assad.