Today I saw a name on my facebook request, someone I’ve thought about from time to time over the last decade. He is in management at the hotel where we stayed in Damascus, the Al-Majed (Spelled this way on the card, Maged on the building…). It will be 10 years this November, that Shabda and I landed in Damascus as part of a peace delegation headed by Elias Amidon and his wife, Rabia.
The fact that Damascus is caught in terrible civil war breaks my heart. Damascus may be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. World Heritage states it was founded 3400 BCE. In 2003 it felt very safe to walk around there, and I did, often alone, feeling the heady ancient qualities, as if in the protection of a wise elder.
Our hotel was near a very high-end international hotel, and I had a daily routine of buying the International Herald Tribune there then stopping for a bag of fresh greens at the open market on another street. I’d ask the kitchen to lightly boil the greens for me. My friend, who worked at Al-Majed, needs to be mentioned here. When I returned from the north earlier than our peace-group, this man, whom I will call “B,” watched out for me. One morning he took me to the Al-Assad National Library, when he learned about my interest in writing about Prophet Muhammad’s wives.
What a place! Built in the 1980’s this fancy new building houses all kinds of literature connected to the “ancestral cultural lineage,” 9 floors (two underground) and 40000 titles. B talked to the guard and convinced him that even though I was an American, he would vouch for me, that I needed entry, and here was my passport. (That was the era of Syria named as part of “The Axis of Evil” by President Bush.) I recall the place as vast and new, with a fountain and at least one cuneiform tablet on the wall. Wait. A Cuneiform Tablet just hanging on the wall? The first historical reference in the world was languaged in that writing on a tablet. Here is a good quote: “The tablets give a background into the world in which the Old Testament grew up.” [Researcher Ted Lewis June 1996, Biblical Archeologist.]
This library containes rare books in many languages and precious manuscripts – the pride of Syria. There is a map room. (Sadly, I never made it back to see detailed maps of 7th century Arabia…) After B left me there to pick his child up from school, I looked for someone with English. I asked how to obtain a stack of books on my subject, to sit and look through. She pointed to a long hallway with a fifties-style office of the chief official who approved and issued passes for the reading room. As-salamu ‘alaykum, I said, English? Wa-lakum as-salam, he replied, Française? And that was it. Me speaking my terrible un-conjugated French, my dismal Française, begging for a three-day card, as if my literary life depended on it. I think he smiled. I know he signed the card which I have framed and include here. It hangs over my desk.
I spent the next two hours blissfully reading stories like that of the eclipse that happened right after Muhammad’s son Ishmael died, writing down sequences (they are before me on this pad: s27 614, outline of bio…. S14 809, Khadija, Mother of the Orphans….). I left as the great library closed its doors early, since it was Ramadan. I remember the chair I sat in, the look of the director’s desk, the cuneiform tablet. All thanks to B.
The night before I got a call from someone who said he was calling from the American Embassy and they were evacuating Americans from Damascus — within the hour. He said there would be a helicopter on the roof. I’d seen that roof. B, is this you??? Great peals of laughter. It was – a joke. At that moment I felt at home in Syria –– and I made a friend. Ten years have passed.
So here is the conversation I had on facebook.
Me: B, is this really you from the Al-Maged in 2003? Good to be in touch.
B. oh yes, Thank God , you talked to me. The hotel is only for Syrians now fleeing from the war since we are still a bit safe area.
Me: My prayers are for you to be safe! I have such a good memory of the telephone joke you played when I was there. Also how good it was of you to take me to the library!
B. God bless you Thanks You don’t know our needs of some nice words like this…
Tonight there was a video of an explosion and bombings that were happening in Damascus. One way we can connect with these terrible things in a healthy way is to see the face of a friend living there. To have him or her in our prayers, to walk that tightrope between obsessing rage-fully about injustice and putting the whole thing out of our mind and heart –– because it is too painful. I invite you, my friends and readers to send a prayer to Damascus, to B and his son, his mother, and his wife, to the spirit of protection and PEACE.
<> B and his mother, may they be safe and well . <>
(for more on Damascus Peace Journey 2003, see Damascus Journal part I and Damascus Journal part II here on Completeword.)
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