Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi

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I wrote the essay below about two years ago about a trip I took to Syria in April, 1990. The essay is about a village called Maaloula and another nearby village the name of which I have never known. I am not familiar with the site (and am slightly technophobic) so my posting below probably merits its own category of Maaloula. I quick peek at google maps shows Maaloula and Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi are close by. Any help anyone could provide in getting this correctly posted would be greatly appreciated. I also have some great pictures of the trip (35 mm, 1990 was pre digital camera, smart phone, etc), out am not sure how to post them here. Hope you enjoy.

Not Playing Volleyball in Syria

Syria today is a place few people would consider a vacation destination, as lands wracked by civil war are seldom inviting. Here’s a story of how, many years ago, I found myself traveling in Syria and the volleyball I did not play there.

It was April in Syria and I was on the bus from Damascus to Ma’loula. I was watching the low hills roll by when I heard Scott issue the mandatory invitation, “Muhammad has invited us to his house. We’re getting off at his stop.”

I was doing a year abroad in Budapest. It was spring break 1990 and Scott, Brian, and I decided to trek through Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. Syria had been my idea. I had suggested it as a joke, not believing an American Jew would be issued a visa in those Cold War days. To my great surprise, the Syrian embassy in Hungary came through, contingent on changing $200.00 into Syrian pounds.

Our trip began with a flight to Amman, Jordan and a few days in Petra. We then hopped a bus to Damascus. Crossing the border was tense. Syria and Jordan, then as now, are not on good terms and I recall border guards using mirrors on sticks to peer under the bus when we entered Syria. They weren’t looking for weed.

Being in Syria was very scary at first. From my seat on the bus, it was immediately apparent that this was an absolute dictatorship with a cult of personality. Pictures of Hafez al-Assad (father of the current dictator) adorned every building. In early afternoon, we arrived in Damascus. Here too, every wall was a tribute to Assad. Temporary friendships with two beautiful Japanese women on the bus and some Scandinavian hippies did little to put me at ease.

Damascus lacks a tourism infrastructure. We ended up staying at the Hotel Sultan-where the cabbie dropped us. It was clean and neat and appeared frozen in 1957. Danish hippie backpackers made up the majority of the guests and they seemed to understand that Scandinavia’s friendly global image afforded them a level of safety not available to Americans in the middle east.

Tourism in Damascus is an act of improvisation. We did not have a guide book. We wandered the city for a day or two and found our way to the stunning Umayyad Mosque and the Medhat Pasha Souq.

During my days in Budapest the Iron Curtain was rusty, but still intact. The internet and its progeny did not exist. For wannabe wonks like myself, the Economist magazine was a major news source. In the days preceding our departure, I read a story in the magazine about a small village in Syria near Damascus. This hamlet is among only three small burgs on the planet where Western Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. I have been an atheist since the time of my bar mitzvah, but still have an interest in religion. The village was called Ma’loula. I put it on the agenda.

And so on the morning of our third day in Damascus, we arrived at the bus station searching for the bus to Ma’loula. The ‘bus’ was really a glorified van painted in bright colors. We dubbed it the ‘disco bus.’ We boarded the disco bus and took seats near the back. For reasons unknown, the driver motioned for us to sit in the front. I can only imagine he wanted to keep an eye on the scary foreigners, an unusual sight in a dictatorship isolated from much of the world. We amused ourselves with mildly racist jokes about ‘whites having to sit at the front on the bus.’

So I found myself on the bus to Ma’loula. Scott and Brian struck up a conversation with a passenger. His name was Muhammad. He spoke English. He lived in a village near Ma’loua. He was very friendly. Did we want to get off at his village and have lunch? Scott and Brian wanted to get off and hang with Muhammad. I was terrified. With visions of being kidnapped and thrown into a Bekaa Valley dungeon racing through my head, we exited the bus in Muhammad’s village.

He took us to his home. It was small and white and appeared to be made of something resembling adobe. Sitting on his floor, we ate pita bread and something like feta cheese. We drank tea. He told us that he commuted to university in Damascus and appeared to be about 30. I don’t remember what he studied. He was critical of Israel. I kept my mouth shut.

After lunch we wandered around the village and eventually came upon a volleyball game. We were invited to play and Scott and Brian joined in. I did not because I have no athletic skills and opted not to embarrass myself. I just watched. I went to Syria and I did not play volleyball there. A little later, we said goodbye to Muhammad, got on another disco bus, and went to Ma’loula. It was interesting in a biblical way, but hanging with normal people was far more satisfying.

So that is what Syria means to me. Normal people going to school, eating lunch, and playing volleyball, but not with me.

I don’t think I ever knew the name of Muhammad’s village, so I can’t google it. I quick google search of Ma’loula shows it’s been held by various forces in the civil war. It must be a nightmare. I wonder whatever became of Muhammad?