I confess that this trip has started in a fog for me. Poor sleeping on the planes, along with a ten-hour layover in London’s Heathrow airport had me arriving to Damascus fairly wiped. We reached our hotel at 6 AM, after a largely sleepless night that had followed another night spent in a plane seat. We were given four hours to clean up, eat up, and rest up. Then our day began.
Damascus is a city of 7 million permanent residents, along with 2 million “guests”, refugees from the West Bank and from Iraq. As a city of that size and one of the major centers of the Arab Middle East (along with Cairo and Istanbul), one could spend a week touring Damascus’ sights—we had one day!
We began at the Syrian National Museum, an impressive but overflowing collection of exhibits. The major highlight was a Jewish synagogue, built in 244 AD, the ruins of which had been discovered in the desert sands of Dura Europos and transported and reassembled in Damascus. Exhibits included a lot of Roman-era artifacts, all the way back to pieces dating back to the Hittites in the realm of 2000 BC. Many were images of gods like Baal and Ishtar. One room featured artifacts from Ugarit, a spot famous for the earliest traces of a written alphabet. All sorts of tombs and artifacts also filled the yard.
A more minor item was a collection of pieces excavated from an Ugaritic philosopher Rabano, who lived in the 1500’s BC. He was known for such relevant relational advice as, “Don’t tell your wife where you keep your money.” As well, he warned, “ Don’t choose your wife at a party.” Better to wait until morning when the make-up, perfume, and drink had faded from the scene!
We were then marched through the Souq, a covered and crowded marketplace, and a venue for lunch. That was followed by a tour of Kazem House, the tomb of Saladin, and the Umayyad Mosque, three key major sights in the center of Old Damascus.
And then the day REALLY began! We were dropped off at Al-Fatih Islamic Campus, where arrangements had been made for our group, primarily Charles and Dr. Paul Spilsbury, had been invited to be part of an inter-faith dialog with leaders from Al-Fatih, along with the Grand Mufti (the Muslim leader) of Damascus! A couple facts quickly became evident as we sat down: 1) I was terribly tired! Put me in a warm room on a comfy seat, listening to a through-a-translator series of monologues, on the tail end of two sleep-deprived nights; and my eyelids were a hundred pounds each! 2) Our dialog was a fascinating encounter once I made it through the exhaustion-wall. It’s not that we saw any forms of breakthrough, or even heard anything shocking. Charles said that any real dialog requires us to acknowledge the integrity of the other stance AND to risk the chance that they may be more right than we are. If anything, what our dialog proved was that this form of dialog is hard-pressed to exist within today’s Middle East. Issues around the land of Israel, Palestinian refugees, and Western involvement in the region’s past century are filled with rock-hard biases and firmly rooted perspectives. It was blindingly clear that any uninformed statements like, “Those people in the Middle East just need to quit fighting and get along,” are profoundly naïve. Wishful, but naïve, to be sure.
This dialog, booked for 5:00-7:00 PM, ran until 7:40 PM. Our hosts for the dialog were also our hosts for a special supper right at the home of the Grand Mufti. Translation: We were welcomed into the inner circle of Syria’s most significant Islamic leadership circle last night. Way beyond the beaten paths! Supper, set to begin at 8:00, was served at 10:20, following a time of traditional Muslim songs, a break for their evening prayer time, along with numerous translated speeches and some informal chit chat.
Our day ended with our arrival back at our hotel at 11:50 PM. We were told that wake-up calls would occur at 6:00 AM the next morning, so we hustled to our rooms and grabbed what we could of a short night’s rest.