Yesterday I visited a town called Maaloula. It’s about an hour’s bus ride north of Damascus, on the road to Homs. Maaloula is a mainly Christian town, almost hidden within a rock valley. Although there is a mosque centred in the middle, which projects the call to prayer like all the other cities in Syria, the tops of the hills all around the town all covered in crosses and there is even a huge statue of Mary leaning over the ridge with arms open to the people below. Also, it was the first time I had heard the sound of church bells ringing in Syria and they were just as loud as the Muslim call to prayer. I traveled to Maaloula with a man called Jacques, who works at the same hotel where three of my housemates work. His brother also came along. He took me to two very old shrines, which date back to the 4th century AD. The first held the tomb of Saint Taqla. The story behind Taqla is that she was a woman who was very pious and was fleeing her father who was persecuting her for her faith. According to the legend, in order to help her escape her father, God split a rock hill to form a secret path for her to use. We walked down that same path, called “Saint Taqla’s Gap”. The two Arabs I was traveling with had no doubt that this was true. Also, inside the shrine itself, where the body lay, there were a stack of old abandoned crutches and leg supports, as if there had been various miracles of healing that had taken place there. Of course, I was a little sceptical about all of this, but I then again everything is possible with God!
The second shrine was dedicated to Saint Serges and Bacchus, who were Roman soldiers martyred because of their faith. This shrine was even older than the first and was built on top of the ruins of an old temple dedicated to the god Apollo. There I witnessed a short ceremony in which two babies were blessed by the priest on their first visit to this shrine. After that the tour guide gave us a very interesting demonstration. She prayed for us the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, which is actually a language still in use in Maaloula! The only word I could recognise was “Ubee”, which I think means, “My Father”. They also refer to the language as Assyrian. Perhaps that is the term for modern day Aramaic.
I was then invited back to have dinner at Jacques’ house, where I met his mother, who prepared the meal. She didn’t introduce herself until she had finished the cooking, until then she was hidden in the kitchen, while we watched some Arab soap operas. By the way, soap operas are a huge thing over here – everyone watches them! And not just one but two or three at least. The most popular one in Damascus is called, Bab Al-Hara, which literally means, “The Door of the City Quarter”. It is also the name of my favourite restaurant in Damascus, where the staff know me very well now! I really enjoyed the experience of eating with a Syrian family. The mother was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to welcome me into here home and finally get to meet me after hearing so much about me from Jacques. It was interesting for me to hear how she used a very strong colloquial accent and how she only used the colloquial dialect, as opposed to the more educated “Fus-Hah”, which is used on the news and in the newspapers. The way people speak here and their choice of vocabulary, like other cultures, is a strong indication of education and class. Also, she couldn’t speak much English so would instead use the occasional French word if I didn’t understand her Arabic.
I have noticed that things here in Syria work at a different pace. Things don’t pick up until late in the morning. Most shops don’t open until around 10 o’clock in the morning and sometimes even 11. Many then stay open until around 1 o’clock in the morning or later. You also see people eating in restaurants as late as midnight.
The weather has become noticeably cooler over the last few days, although is still extremely hot in the middle of the day, reaching almost 40 degrees sometimes. The evenings have become a little more pleasant and I don’t need to set my fan at such a high setting during the night anymore.
A couple days ago I had my placement test. It was ridiculously hard, especially since all of the directions were given in Arabic, so half the test was simply understanding what in the world I was supposed to be writing! I did, however, quite enjoy the speaking part of the exam, which was just a 5 minute chat about the weather and why I wanted to learn Arabic …etc. My classes begin Monday, when I shall find out which level of Arabic I am placed in.