Abuna di Bishemaya: such is the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, the language supposedly spoken by Jesus. It can be heard, sung by beautiful voices, in Malula, a town of some 5,000 inhabitants, about 50 kilometers north of Damascus. Malula, on the edge of a narrow gorge in an arid landscape suggestive of the Syrian desert which begins not far to the east, is one of the few towns in the world that conserve Aramaic as a living language. Its inhabitants, mostly Christians with a sprinkling of Muslims, take pride in this circumstance, and in their town's prestige in religious history. Here too is the sepulcher of Saint Tecla, one of the earliest of martyrs, and it is said that Saint Paul himself passed this way - I don't know if on the road to Damascus.
The guide who told me this, and showed me the fine Orthodox church of Saint George, did not know either, but this did nothing to diminish his pride in the story. He was a Muslim, and was highly pleased that Christmas and Good Friday, the pre-eminent festivals of Christianity, were national holidays in his country. He saw this as an example of the religious tolerance prevalent among Syrian people.
On another visit to Syria, another guide sought to express the same feeling, from the other side. He was a Christian and we were visiting the mausoleum of a Muslim saint: Ibn Arabi, the great mystic born in Murcia in 1165. I remember perfectly the freezing winter morning, with snow covering the steep streets that lead to the mausoleum. The guide told of the saint's life and works, always emphasizing the confluence of different religious currents. He was not an official guide of the sort that has a memorized script. He had read and admired the work of Ibn Arabi, and was able to integrate it into his world view. Like the guide in Malula, he took pride in the tolerance of his compatriots.
we can only harbor the deepest doubts as to the democratic character of the groups arrayed against Assad
Now, when Syria is in the news for undesirable reasons, I like to remember many of the people I met there. Perhaps the quintessence of them was the history professor from the University of Damascus, who took me around the National Museum. I have often thought, in these ominous days, that he was the only one who could give a credible account of the patchwork quilt of the sectarian reality in Syria.
There is no doubt of course about the dictatorial and cruel character of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. However, the mild-looking ophthalmologist (a dictator by accident, after his elder brother, the heir-apparent intended for the job, died in a car accident) is far from being an absolute ruler in the Saddam Hussein mold. He rules by the consent of the hard-liners in his ethnic group. His countenance is only the visible, polite, educated face of the Alawite tribe and sect, who have long been the power in the land and have exercised that power with immoderate greed. They believe, not entirely unreasonably, that there would be a genocide of Alawites were the rebels to win.
On the other side we can only harbor the deepest doubts as to the democratic character of the groups arrayed against him, the so-called rebels, of mutually contradictory ideas. Together with a certain number of genuine democrats, the rebels include large numbers of people who, if they won power, would round up the democrats and shoot them.
Assad's regime must go, of course, but what will replace it? Were the fundamentalism prevalent in some of the factions to prevail, what would become of the Christians in Malula, the Ismaelites, the Zoroastrians, the Druses, or simply the Shiites and Sunnis?
Simplicity, as the Americans have been learning, is a quality not often found in Middle Eastern political problems. I myself would like to have a clearer idea of what is going on now in Syria, instead of relying on memories of past visits. The usual media coverage, invariably cast in terms of rebels against dictator, does not help much.