East of Paris Bookstore

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Time Out

Long trips interrupt life as do returns from long trips. There is jet lag to get over, accumulated mail to read, bills to pay plus assorted office and house work. Then there are holidays that sneak up too quickly. In our case, Thanksgiving came too soon for me to do anything other than make reservations at a local restaurant. We had a lovely time, until first Mr. Wonderful, then my mother, and then I all got bronchitis. Another interruption.

All of which leads me to say that the time out from everyday things can be good, even in spite of illness. That is how I reflect on the pilgrimage we took to Syria, Lebanon and a small part of Turkey. A pilgrimage is a time out from the ordinary and away from the familiar made with the objective of reflecting on something greater than ourselves … on God. You start out as one person and come back changed. Some of the changes are obvious -- you now have seen new things, met new people, tasted new food, smelled new smells, prayed in new places. Other changes are subtle, even hidden, and you may not aware of the impact of new experiences for a long time.

Our pilgrimage started when we committed to this trip and began our reading. Then we hit the ground in Damascus and dived into a non-stop schedule of activity for several weeks. In addition to visiting holy sites, attending liturgies as well as matins and vespers, there were ceremonial visits to church and civic dignitaries, long treks from point to point, lectures about ancient and recent history, lavish meals, and a few hikes.  Little down time and few wi-fi hot spots.

We were pleasantly surprised that the Christian [Greek Orthodox] communities in Syria and Lebanon are thriving -- well kept churches filled with people, schools, hospitals, and even an Internet cafĂ© for kids at the cathedral of St. Elias in Aleppo. This was quite a contrast to Turkey, a NATO member and EU-want-to-be, where clerics are not allowed to wear their cassocks in public and religious schools are banned. And, while both Syria and Turkey officially call themselves “secular,” one country tolerates and encourages Christians to practice their faith and the other seems to suppress it. For example, while the “weekend” is Friday and Saturday, in Syria Christians who wish to go to church on Sunday get 2 hours off from work by law.

Another big surprise for us was feeling very safe in Syria, which the western press almost universally depicts  in a negative way. We found the people to be hospitable and friendly and shopkeepers to be honest. While looking at gold jewelry in the souk, a jeweler recommended getting “serious pieces” back home where we would get a better price! And on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, a butcher invited us into his shop to see how they were preparing the sheep for slaughter … amid laughter and a few photos we politely declined.

We also felt safe and comfortable in Lebanon.  Twenty years after a devastating civil war, we saw no remnants of the "green line" that divided Beirut.  But, admittedly, we did not travel south of Beirut to areas more recently impacted by the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

So, after my time out from blogging, I will get back to reminiscing about our fascinating trip with more posts and photos. 

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