November 9, 2010 Maalula, Syria
Traveling on your own can be lonely at times but it also presents you with the opportunity to form relationships with people really fast. Within the last week, I have been lucky enough to connect with a girl from Bulgaria who recently moved to Syria to find work. As we were talking over dinner one night, she mentioned that she wants to go to a place called Marmusa and I told her I also want to go to Maalula, one of the only towns where the ancient language of Aramaic is still spoken. Since there is often an English and Arabic name for each city, we logically concluded that Maalula and Marmusa were the same place and made plans to go together the following day. After a few hours at the hamman (traditional middle-eastern bathhouse), a taxi ride, and plenty of consulting with locals, we finally arrived at the bus station in Damascus. We were asked to show our passports to the Syrian official (all tourists activities are monitored, recorded and logged in Syria) and purchased our tickets. After some back and forth with me asking how to get to Maalula and my friend asking how to get to Marmusa, a crowd of men gathered around us attempting to decode our crazy request. Finally someone who spoke English said, “Do you want to go to Marmusa or Maalula? They are different!” My friend quickly replied “Marmusa” and thus the adventure began.
I boarded the mini-van realizing I had no idea where we were going or what we were doing but was just going along for the ride. From the mini-van, we transferred to a private taxi and dusk was setting in. Approaching a mountain in the desert, we realized our driver was trying to communicate something to us. He made a signal that we need to be strong. My friend turned to me and said, “I think he is saying we need to hike to Marmusa.” In denial, I said “No, he is just saying the car needs to be strong to get us up the hill.” However, to my dismay, he stopped the car at the bottom of the mountain, pointed up to some lights at the top and said, “Marmusa is up there…you have to climb.” My friend and I both looked at each other with fear in our eyes and said, “No, we can’t, it’s completely dark and we don’t know the way.” Though unspoken, we both knew we had no choice other than to hike up the mountain or sleep at the bottom. With our broken Arabic, we told the driver that we won’t get out of the car unless he walks with us up the mountain. With a bit of reluctance mixed with sympathy the driver said, “Yala!” and we both put our backpacks on, sucked up our fear and began our ascent up the hill, pausing every 5 minutes for the poor man to catch his breath. Luckily, I had this powerful headlamp in my backpack that was given to me as a gift from my friends before I left that at least allowed us to see the path in front of us. After about 20 minutes of climbing in silence in the pitch dark with only my tiny headlamp, we heard voices and both my friend and I looked at each other and screamed, “There are people!” We asked them how much longer we had to climb and they said another 20 minutes. At that point we told our driver he can go and finally made it to the top of the hill.
Upon arrival to the site, I realized that Marmusa is actually a monastery where both nuns and monks live together. A young woman greeted us as we came in and said, “Welcome, now we have one hour of meditation in the sanctuary.” We entered a small church with candles lit all around and bibles in a variety of languages. We joined the rest of the guest sitting on pillows on the church floor and after a short prayer our hour of meditation began. I am not a very religious person and I clearly had no idea what I was getting myself into however, the meditation time gave me an opportunity to process everything that I had experienced, seen, and felt over the last few weeks (although I still did feel a bit awkward). After our meditation session we ate dinner and were shown to our room which was basically a cave with 2 beds in the monastery.
The next morning we woke up, did a few chores to earn our keep (accommodations are free in Marmusa but you are expected to contribute by helping) and then explored the Syrian Desert. When we arrived the night before, since it was so dark, we had no idea what the landscape even looked like and me and my friend just looked down and thought, “We climbed all that way in the dark?!” We walked around the desert a bit and it was so beautiful, calm and relaxing. We then began our climb down the hill (which was much easier than going up) and headed to our next destination: Maalula.
We asked around and found out that Maalula actually is not that far from Marmusa so we got directions and were on our way. We arrived at a small connection hub and randomly ran into our driver from the night before and he looked at us, smiled and said, “Alhamdulalla (thank god) you are ok!” We boarded our second bus and after 30 minutes the driver stopped and said, “Get out….this way to Maalula.” At this point we had become so accustomed to these situations that we just got out and waited on the side of the freeway for another bus. After 20 minutes there were still no signs of a bus and then finally from a distance, we saw a little white minivan coming our way. I started waving my arms for them to stop and….they actually did.
With our bags in tote we ran and with a proud sense of accomplishment boarded the bus. As I walked down the isle I noticed all the women were totally covered and dressed in black. My friend and I both sat down in empty seats apart from each other; we were just so relieved to not be stranded in the middle of the Syrian freeway. The driver didn’t collect any money from us (which was odd) and as we were driving, I started listening to the people around me and thought, “Wow, this language sounds really familiar.” Then I realized an older woman in the back was attempting to ask my friend where she is from in Farsi. I had a mini debate in my head about whether I should respond and reveal my identity or not and what kind of reaction I would get and before I got too far in my thought process I turned around and in Farsi blurted out, “She is from Bulgaria and I am from America but my parents are Iranian. We are traveling together.” Suddenly every single persons head whipped around and just stared at me in disbelief (including my friend who thought to herself, wow, Roxana really learned Arabic fast). Once they got over the initial shock their curiosity kicked in: What’s your name? Where are you from? Where are your parents from? Why are you here? Have you been to Iran? Why don’t you come to Iran…it’s much more beautiful than Syria? What did you study? Are you safe here? They were all so excited and interested and when I apologized for crashing their bus tour (which was a private tourist bus service not a public bus) they said, “Don’t worry, that is the Iranian blood in you. It was our luck that you did so we could meet you.” They asked me more about my family and life in America and when they asked my last name and I replied “Norouzi” they exclaimed, “Wow, we have a Mr. Norouzi here on the bus.” They then introduced me to Mr. Norouzi and I put my hand out to shake his hand and the man quickly pulled away (one of the many cultural faux pas I have made). Once we entered the church in Maalula I saw many more Iranians (the Christian town and churches are a place of interest for those even on Muslim pilgrimage trips as it houses a picture of the martyr Maryam) and all the women asked to take pictures with me and said “Yes, we will take your pictures to Mashhad (city in Iran) and show everyone that we met an Iranian girl that lives in America in Syria!”
After we said goodbye to the Iranians, we visited some of the ancient churches in Maalula and although they were beautiful, I really was more interested in learning about the culture and people of the town. So we took another bus down to the small town center and just started walking around. Unsuccessful in our attempt to meet locals, we realized there is no way we could have the experience we want to have without a contact. We were both tired and burned out so we decided to just call it a day and wait for our bus back to Damascus. We had about an hour to kill so we walked into the
Maalula tourist office and of course were immediately offered tea. The staff there explained to us a bit about the town of Maalula and some of the sites. We asked about the language of Aramaic (the oldest language in the world and supposedly the language of Jesus Christ). They explained that although Aramaic is still widely-spoken by the majority of the population in Maalula, it is actually a dying language because it is not being passed down to the new generation. The institute to preserve the language has been closed because the Syrian government has stopped funding it (partly because the written script of Aramaic looks similar to Hebrew which is a huge issue in Syria). A young man who previously taught Aramaic at the institute came into the office and shared more with us about the roots of the language and the current concern with preserving it in Syria.
The staff at the tourism office also told us that though tourism is growing in Maalula, this is problematic because it does not directly benefit the people or local economy of the town. Tour buses bring people in to visit the church and historical sites and then leave. In order to promote more sustainable tourism the staff told us about new project in which they coordinate homestays for foreigners with local families. After about 30 minutes of hearing about the project, my friend and I both looked at each other and said, “We should just stay tonight.” And just like that, we were in for another adventure and launched their new project into action.
We were shown to our local family’s home with a private room on the second floor balcony and met the family (a husband, wife and 7 year old girl). They were all so hospitable and did everything to make us feel comfortable and welcome in their home. We joined them for dinner and were served fresh hummus, falafel, olives, fried potatoes, eggplant and other typical Syrian delicacies as well as homemade red wine. Through broken Arabic (and the help of an English-Arabic dictionary) we learned that the father is Maalulan and speaks Aramaic but his wife does not because she is from a different town. Due to the failing economy and shrinking infrastructure in Maalula, schooling is only provided locally through 8th grade and then youth must leave the town to attend high school in Damascus (which is where the family’s other children are). This is not only an economic hardship but also results in a fractured and strained family structure. Leaving the town also makes marriage outside of the community very common, another reason why the language is not passed down to the children. I shared with them that my great-grandmother was from Syria and spoke Aramaic but that similarly, the language was lost in my dad’s generation.
The next morning we went on a tour through Maalula with the young man who we met the day before who teaches Aramaic. He took us to all the historical sites as well as these amazing caves and walkways carved out of stones that he described with such enthusiasm and pride. As we walked through the street of the town, people would smile and the local children would practice their English with us. A shopkeeper called me into his store just to give me a packet of cookies as a welcome gesture. After our tour, we went for lunch and entered this little European style café with bright colored walls, eclectic décor and an espresso machine (which is hard to come by in Syria). We had a delicious lunch and talked with the female owner who explained she recently opened the restaurant all on her own and was inspired by her brother’s restaurant, Maaloula, on a small island called San Juan in Washington State. I got so excited and told her I am from Seattle and have been to the San Juan. We took pictures together and talked about what a small world it is. After we finished our lunch, all the people we had met in the town came to say goodbye and send us off as we boarded our bus back to Damascus to attend the International Film Festival that night (from roughing it to the red carpet).
Leaving Maalula I thought about how much deeper an understanding of a place is gained when you take the extra time to make connections with people. If we would have just gone to Maalula, seen the tourist sites and left, we would have missed out on the culture of this amazing town and the warmth of its people. The one thing I have learned so far is traveling is ALWAYS an adventure that you have to embrace every minute of. Even when you are standing at the bottom of that dark, steep mountain looking up…there is always light at the top!