I walked the streets of Damascus five years ago but in a different lifetime. I washed the dust of those ancient alleys from my feet at night before falling into bed. But I probably still carried some with me, past the borders, in the cracks of my shoes and fold of my scarves and creases of my heart. My pockets and notebooks held the scribbles of remembered moments spent in the city known for the conversion of the apostle Paul. A city drenched in history, tragic yet vital, nestled now in the midst of turmoil. The most famous city in Syria, a country now infamous for bloodshed and cruelty. That is not the country I witnessed, but those are the streets I walked. That is the air I breathed. That is the history that I waded through, not leaving my mark but letting it leave its mark on me.
We only passed through Syria, a brief rest during a greater journey. Even back then, before the violence filled the spaces between dilapidated buildings and distant souls, it was barely safe. There was a nervousness that had settled in the air. As if just kicking up dirt would tip the scales, an uprising of dust clouds slowly forming into armies hell-bent on sullying all the good to be found in that little but important corner of the world. There was a fragility that lingered in the Syrian air. You couldn’t trust it or believe in it, even if you wanted to.
So, sadly, hearing the tragedy and possible action to be taken against Syria leaves me unfortunately underwhelmed. I hear the news and read the articles and all of it, everything that slowly unfolds, seems inevitable. The only recourse. The expected turn of events. Syria is on a path, dark and twisted, and when people express shock, I can only nod and think to myself, “What else is to be expected?”
You don’t want to use words like hopeless or lost cause when you talk about violence and conflict and the tragic loss of innocent lives. You don’t want to shrug your shoulders and say, “It’ll pass. There’s nothing we can do.” Nothing is worse than admitting defeat. But I walked through Tahrir Square, the eventual center of protests in Cairo that spiraled into something that broke my heart and left me speechless. I remember standing in Israel/Palestine and seeing the wall that divides, the wall that separates and keeps peace at bay. I sat and listened to Israeli students recount their time spent in the military, to Jewish scholars discuss the politics and religion of the conflict, to Arabic Christians caught in the middle, to the Muslims who aren’t anything like the terrorists ignorance has turned them into. I heard their stories, the chapters that overlapped and the ones that contradicted. I read it in their eyes that held a secret pain, one I can’t even begin to imagine. I felt it in the silence that filled the rooms anytime one of my fellow students dared to ask “How can we bring this conflict to end?” It was the thematic arc that each person seemed to borrow from, a reluctant helplessness.
Because if my time in the Middle East, my four months that were both a gift and unexpected burden laid on my soul, taught me anything, it’s that there is no easy answer. There is no line you can draw or side you can take that will heal the wounds of a conflict that has become entrenched in a region that gave birth to so much beauty. There is no pro or con list that will ever add up, leaving politicians and humanitarians and activists and civilians and religious leaders with a solution that makes everyone happy; a map drawn in black and white that appeals and appeases all sides, majority and minority alike.
The world is the midst of the unsolvable conflict. The problem with no quick fix or simple solution. We have finally realized that sometimes sending in an army or dropping bombs or sitting down in a neutral room or creating alliances and treaties isn’t going to make things better. This is beyond us.
And we hate it. We can’t accept it. We want to bring an end to it.
But I walked through Jerusalem and saw Jewish families, men on one side and women on another, praying at the Western/Wailing Wall. And I circled the Dome of the Rock with Muslims from around the world. I heard Palestinians and Israelis talk about their people and their home and their country after driving along the wall that separates hearts and families and people born of the same land. I stood in Syria with a sense of unease, somehow knowing I shouldn’t be there. I was baptized in the anger and frustration and sadness of people who want peace, an end to the madness.
Though we can sit here on our couches and scroll through the news on our iPhones and talk like we know the right way to fix the Middle East, we forget that the Middle East is filled with people; not just governments we are at odds with or terrorists groups who threaten us. We forget that to declare war, to invade with tanks and guns means innocents are caught in the crossfire. We forget that those war-torn countries are made up of people who detest war and violence, who just want to live in peace without fear of tomorrow. We forget that those countries are filled with hearts and souls that have been silenced and oppressed and carelessly used as pawns in someone else’s war, bartered with as an expendable means to an end. We forget that when we use our religion to justify our political actions, we only make ourselves look ridiculous, because we are fighting against those who do the very same. We forget the most important details, because in forgetting we can distance ourselves from the harsh and tragic reality: that innocent souls are at stake. Until we remember that first and second and third, what can we hope to accomplish?
And as I write these words, I’m not quite sure of their purpose or usefulness. I recognized years ago a sort of futility that comes from discussing and debating the future of the Middle East; no two people see it the same. I watch the governments rise and fall, the death counts rise, terrorism spread, the fear and violence come together in a terrible coexistence, and realize there is nothing I can do. There are no words I can say or tears I can shed or sides I can take that will undo the deaths and heal the wounds and make the monstrous leaders see how wrong they are.
I can only remember the people I met and ones I didn’t. The homes that welcomed me and the hands that fed me. I can only remember the love and kindness and generosity I was shown for no reason at all. I can only remember the stories told to me hesitantly, colored by the fear that seems to have seeped into the words of those who pray for peace in languages I will never understand. I can only remember the beautiful hearts and gorgeous smiles, each carefully crafted by the hands of a loving God. I can only remember the details and write them down and hope that maybe they are a part of a greater story, the ending we have been waiting for.
So today I close my eyes and remember the streets of Damascus and pray with a heavy heart that someday children will walk them without fear.
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