Letter from the Road #19

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon


From a Desert Monastery


Up here in the desert cliffs everything that is not human, goat, or chicken, is stone or sky. A long rocky path winds up to the stone walls of this 6th century monastery. At dawn and dusk the sky is the color of mother-of-pearl, otherwise it is bright blue by day and ink black by night and scattered with a million stars. That’s all. No trees or bushes, no television, no debris of civilization, just sky and stone and we few animals in between. Here it is easy to muse on cosmic things, and the vastness of space and of time and its passing.

I sleep over the goat barn. There are at least forty goats, counting all the little ones who arrived this spring. I hear their bells clinking as they shift in the night.

This monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian, Deir Mar Musa Al-Habashi, looks out over the ancient trade route that leads to Palmyra in the eastern desert, and beyond to Baghdad. I think of Baghdad out there, now caught in its confusion and violence, and of how many times over the long trail of history have tales been told within these walls of new pillage and bloodshed in the region by invading Romans, Persians, Tartars, Crusaders, Turks, French, and British.

Deir Mar Musa is now inhabited by a small band of European and Arab Jesuits. This morning after prayers in the stone basilica with its single shaft of light beaming down from a high window, the abbot, Father Paolo, asked me to tell news from Iraq. He had wanted to join us there before the war, but his Jesuit superiors had denied him permission to go to Baghdad so the community held a seven-day fast instead.

We shared new tales of that pre-invasion time, when we all sought through prayers and actions to increase political and military sensitivity to the plight of the Iraqi people. In this, we agreed, the efforts of the Iraq Peace Team and hundreds of other peace campaigns around the world were partially successful. We did not stop the war, but surely love begets love in the long run.

Father Paolo, as well as all the other Syrians I speak with, welcomes the end of Saddam Hussein’s despotic reign. But they are disturbed by how this change was brought about, by the crudeness of tactics and the lack of foresight on the part of the American forces.

They are angry at American threats toward their country, and what they consider American hypocrisy in advertising values of democracy and justice while leaving a trail of support for oppressive regimes, reminding me that the Americans had supported Saddam in the 1970’s and 80’s when he was consolidating his power and committing his most terrifying crimes.

The Syrians I’ve met while traveling in this country have a keener sense of history than most Americans and are ready to lecture you if given half a chance. “The U.S. says it champions human rights!” a Syrian engineer exclaimed to me in Damascus. “But your government opposes most human rights agreements at the United Nations. I’m not talking about the human rights of Palestinians displaced by Israelis. I’m talking about many other things, like opposition to the Land Mine Treaty, or the International Criminal Court, or the fact that of all the countries in the world, only the U.S. and Iraq have not ratified the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Why is that?”

I had no idea why. Of course, Syria itself has a poor human rights record, and Palestinian refugee camps on its territory are appalling. This may be why the Syrians object so strenuously to being rebuked by an authority they see as no better than themselves. The image of America as a morally hypocritical nation pervades the Middle East. In addition, they are stung by a history of negative judgment and domination from the West, and by the sense that they, the Arabs, have to pay for the holocaust guilt of Europe by ceding their land to a Western Jewish state.

I read recently that if the most cherished need of each side in the conflict between Arabs and the West were reduced to one word each, the West’s deepest need could be described as security and the Arab’s deepest need as honor. This may be simplistic, but it points to a core truth. The Arabs feel humiliated by the West. They want respect. They want to be treated as full human beings. They want their views listened to and understood. From their view of Western arrogance toward them it becomes easier to understand why, even though they hated Saddam, they are so angered by the presence of Western troops on Arab lands.

It is in this context that we have established the program of “Interfaith Pilgrimages of Peace to Syria”. I am here preparing for the pilgrimages scheduled for this fall and for 2004.  The intention of these pilgrimages is to help create conditions for peace over the long term by building bridges between citizens of Western countries and citizens of Syria. Through our presence we wish to show respect and to listen sincerely to their points of view. Sometimes those points of view are inimical to our own, and that’s just where we can open to greater love. The Sufi master Inayat Khan once remarked that a Sufi is someone who can see things from two points of view, his own and that of another. This is a spirit that, Sufi or not, we can all profit from.

Honor. Respect. These are mysterious things. I confess that I sometimes wonder if such small gestures as citizen-to-citizen peacemaking pilgrimages are not completely marginalized by the bitter factionalism of the world, by the ever-resurgent tendency to distrust, hate, and take advantage of the “other”.

Yesterday I shared these doubts with a man named Antoine, a traveler from Lebanon, as we sat in the monastery’s sunny courtyard watching an old tortoise move its shell-encased body slowly across the stones. Antoine, worldly-wise, affirmed my doubts. “Humans are like that turtle,” he said. “We create our identity out of our opposition to the world. Do you know that saying of Sartre’s? ‘Je me pose en m’opposant.’ That means something like, ‘I pose an identity for myself through opposing others.’ Or, you could say, ‘I judge, therefore I am.’”

It was difficult to disagree with him. The urge to dishonor and negate others fuels the survival tactics of our frail egos. What can possibly counter this?

Late last night I sat with Father Paolo on the monastery’s outer walls watching the stars. When I repeated Sartre’s words to him, he reminded me of Jesus’ teachings of love. “Love may appear weak,” he said, “in comparison to the force and passion of taking sides, but in the end selfless love will always outlast self-assertion.”

I am moved by Paolo’s faith. He reminded me that the world is in fact healed continually by small momentary acts of selflessness and kindness that seek to reach across the distinctions and differences that divide us. By themselves, Paolo said, such acts may not appear to change much, but added together they make a world of love.

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