More Christians are fleeing Iraq in response to targeted violence, the New York Times reported yesterday. Every time I read about this or other ethnic exoduses in the Middle East, I wince a little thinking how these once-pluralistic countries are being inexorably pushed toward homogeneity. A good scholar of Middle Eastern history knows how factually wrong it is when Americans shrug their shoulders and say, “these groups have been at each other’s throats for thousands of years.” In Iraq and Syria, that simply wasn’t true (though societies weren’t harmonious Utopias either). But for how things are going now, it might as well have been.
In 2006, my mom and I confronted this in a far more acute way, when she visited me in Damascus, where I was living. On a field trip to an ancient Christian shrine, we were forced to confront this aspect of the war in Iraq firsthand, as we listened to the tearful admonishments of a survivor — a survivor of our American war.
My mom wrote a letter to then-President Bush in response to the experience. Reading the Times article, I feel like it is still relevant, if for no other reason than to remind us of how our country will long be tied to the experiences of Iraqis. I got her permission to post it here, in a slightly trimmed-down form.
Letter from Damascus
I was recently in Damascus, Syria and visited a place that I thought you would find moving. It is located within the walls of the old city, reputed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. To find this place you must enter through one of the many gates that were built into this wall by the city’s various rulers, some by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago. One hundred years ago these gates were all locked at sunset, but today you may enter freely at any time. Find the gate called Bab Touma and enter on foot, leaving behind the chaos that characterizes modern Damascus. A sense of timelessness unfolds as you follow curving passageways formed by the mud brick walls of houses and shops on all sides. Looking overhead you will see grapevine-draped balconies that nearly touch each other from opposite sides of the lane. Over the centuries people have sat in their houses and passed tea back and forth across the lanes and into each others’ homes while they conversed and gossiped, escaping the midday heat.
You will almost certainly hear the call to prayer which flows and drifts through the old city, which is filled with mosques. But if you look closer, you will notice that around you are many churches and small shrines set into alcoves that contain Christian icons with Arabic script describing what the icons represent. And then you will realize that you are in the Christian Quarter of old Damascus—Bab Touma. If you continue toward Straight Street and Bab Sharqi–the Eastern Gate–you may see, at the edge of a small square, the entrance to a small chapel, called Saint Ananias Church.
This location is described in the New Testament of the Bible. Here is the story of Saul who, entering Damascus, fell from his horse and became blind. For three days he lay blind and without food until a Syrian named Ananias found him, converted him to Christianity, and cured him of his blindness. Thus began the life of St. Paul, who changed his name upon conversion and became a major disciple of Jesus. You must be familiar with this story—every Christian knows it—but I wonder if you know that it happened in Damascus?
If you enter the low doorway as I did you will find a cave-like chapel built into the wall of the ancient city. The stones laid down by the Romans were incorporated into a small altar at one end. To the side is an even smaller chapel with plaques showing the various stages of Saul’s conversion. The last plaque shows Paul being lowered in a basket out of a window in the ancient wall. Indeed, the plaques show what happened in this place nearly 2,000 years ago. In case my description has not allowed you to visualize the place, I am including a photograph of it.
Once inside the church, I recalled this story of Saul from my long ago childhood, when Damascus was only an exotic, storied, and distant place. This is indeed a place for contemplation of history and man’s place within it.
A few minutes after I entered I was approached by a woman, dressed in a black coat and wearing a black head covering. Although her hair was concealed, I could see that she was a middle-aged woman whose large black eyes were surrounded by lines of pain and grief. Her two daughters were at her side and they wandered away, with embarrassment as teenagers will do, as she spoke to me.
“You are American?”
“Yes,” I spoke knowing that it is unusual to encounter an American in Syria, yet she could recognize me.
“Please, tell your Mr. President Bush that he must stop making the war on Iraq.” Her English was rough yet she was speaking quickly, without hesitation, straight from the heart. “He is destroy our country, he kills the people, our homes are gone forever. And why? Why?” Her eyes pleaded with me for explanation.
“I am an Iraqi Christian woman. We left our home to Syria–it is not safe in Iraq. My husband is killed in the invasion, my son, too. They tried to kidnap my daughter.” Her eyes filled with tears and still begged for understanding and her voice became a controlled sob. “We come to Syria, but there is nothing here for us. Nothing to do. No way to support ourselves. We are far from home. We cannot return.”
My son stood beside me and we found ourselves unable to say anything. How could I say that I opposed this war from the beginning? How could I comment that I had marked every anniversary of the start of the war with a peace parade pleading for its end? For what would this mean to a woman who had lost her husband, and her son? And her center—her very home?
So, I held the woman’s rough hands in my own and looked into her eyes, mother-to-mother and woman-to-woman. Both of our eyes were full of tears and I could say nothing though my heart beat “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. For your suffering. For what my nation has done to yours and to your life.”
She asked me to tell my President to stop making war on her country. And so I am. And so I do.
This really happened.