Finding the Way East

March 5, 2011

November 8th, 2010: a day that I will never forget. As the sun set over Damascus, I faintly heard a call to prayer echo from a minaret in the distance. Within seconds, the lone voice was joined by others which boomed out in the ancient Syrian capital that glistened before my eyes. The cries multiplied and interwove while their combined volume, climbed, climbed, and climbed, feeding my ears a soundtrack somehow both jarring and intoxicating. This experience seemed an appropriate way to say goodbye to a place that had captured my imagination and enticed me to stay much longer than planned. Soon, I told myself, I will move on to visit more jewels of the Middle East. The mighty ruins of Petra in Jordan. The rambling quarters of Old Jerusalem. And the colossal Pyramids of Egypt. But just as my extended stay in Damascus had been unexpected, little did I know that another surprise was in store for me that evening: a moment that would shape the following four months in unforeseen ways.


Maintaining this blog has been a wonderful way to record and share my travels. After completing an entry, I feel that I have brought an experience full circle; that the act of reviving a special moment and permanently etching it into the ether helps me to clarify the personal meaning of that moment, and subsequently move forward as a changed person. Keeping the blog updated also helps remind me how lucky I am to be doing this, and gives me impetus to continue onward. But at times it can also feel like a burden. There are a thousand things that I'd like to share, and narrowing down the few which I take the time to express is not a simple process. In addition, it has been difficult to balance travel and new experiences with the serious time for reflection that my writing requires. As a result, I often find myself falling further and further behind, sometimes writing about things months after they happen, by which point many of the poignant details have started to slip away. Conversely, the act of traveling is what inspires me to continue writing, so when I feel forcibly grounded against my will, my motivation begins to dwindle. Thus I have arrived at a point where I realize that I haven't really written about anything which has transpired in the past five months of my travels. What follows is my attempt to paint a picture in broad brushstrokes of this eventful time in my life.


Monastery of Mar Musa

In early October, I had just arrived in Damascus when I began hearing astonishing tales of an ancient monastery hidden away in mountains of the Syrian desert. Soon after, I squeezed into a series of exhaust-spewing microbuses before finally arriving to Deir Mar Musa. This dramatically situated monastery was originally constructed in the 6th century, and currently houses Syrian Catholic monks as well as a revolving array of curious foreigners who come to volunteer their labor in exchange for simple meals, a bed, and a roof. I spent two nights in the monastery. The most memorable part of my time in Deir Mar Musa was attending the sacred ceremony of nightly mass. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it would be hard to not be spiritually moved in such environs.

Not far from the monastery lies Maalula, a legendary town where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. While preparing to leave Deir Mar Musa, I overheard that on that very day Maalula's annual "Mar Serkis" festivities were taking place. I didn't have a clue what that meant...but I sure wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to find out! I joined two other travelers, Arek and Reinus, and we arrived in Maalula just as hundreds of local men were boisterously parading through the streets. So it came to be that a Latvian, a Pole, and an American began following a celebratory crowd of singing, dancing, and increasingly drunken Christian Syrians. The revelers welcomed the foreigners into their parade, offering us gulps from a gigantic goblet filled with a potent white liquor called Arak. Needless to say, my shock at finding such a raucous event in the middle of the Middle East wore thinner with every drink from the goblet. Nonetheless, I was still startled when we suddenly brought the party straight to the door of the town nunnery! Crowds of locals were waiting there in anticipation as we stormed inside the convent. A powerful singer raised the liquor-filled goblet and led the mob in song, as nuns sprinkled holy water on us from above. Surreal. Not what I would ever expect to witness on a day honoring a local Saint, much less in Syria!

That night, seemingly the whole village emptied into a central space behind the local elementary school. An enormous sound-system boomed infectious Arabic rhythms while hundreds of onlookers watched people participate in the most unique hoedown I have ever seen. The dabke is a type of folk dance where people interlock arms to form rings and create something of a giant line-dance. To the uninitiated, people in the ring seem to be laconically moving in sync according to some indiscernible pattern. But at key moments in the song, the ring organically spirals open and suddenly explodes into a hyperactive succession of acrobatic moves involving arm-raising, leaping, and kicking. I was mesmerized. Our new friends from the parade earlier in the day spotted us in the crowds and invited us to partake in the craziness. For the next few minutes all eyes turned towards the dancing foreigners and we became the focus of the whole party! I'm sure there must be some embarrassing videos on youtube somewhere. In the wee hours of the night, we returned to crash at the convent, where we had reserved some cheap beds earlier in the day.

In the past 72 hours I'd spent two nights in a monastery, one night in a convent, and participated in one unforgettable celebration. I would soon find out that Syria was only just beginning to turn all of my preconceptions upside down. 

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