A happy Christmas in Syria (yes, you read right)

Christmas Eve, 2012.

My mind is on Syria, as it has been all year, and throughout 2011, for reasons that are only too obvious in the news headlines.

But today, as at every Christmas, it’s on my mind for what I could call happier reasons. If only I could be reassured that those reasons aren’t now just a memory.

I’ve known and loved Syria since I studied Arabic in Damascus in the 1990s. Compared to the chaos around it back then, it was a quiet corner of the Middle East. Authoritarianism and insularity bred stability and predictability – along with problems that one was best not to mention. How things change.

Heading off on my first overseas trip, I wasn’t sure how much a Westerner would be able to celebrate Christmas in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

I needn’t have worried. 10% of Syria’s population is Christian, and they weren’t afraid to show it – and I mean that quite literally. The Christian quarter of the 5,000-year-old city burst with festive joy, the neighbourhood’s Roman arches and Byzantine domes adding a Biblical mystique to the season. Even the fact that it was cold at Christmas made it a wondrously different Christmas from those I’d experienced back home in Melbourne.

But, magical as they were, these travelogue images are not what stay with me. My enduring memory of Christmas in the Middle East is of my local Muslim friends wishing me Merry Christmas.

Really, it should not have been so surprising. My time in Syria was full of little moments when practicality would steamroll my Western cautiousness not to offend.

The neatest example was when I boarded a local meekrobus (one of the ubiquitous Hi-Aces that formed the backbone of Damascus’s informal public transport system), to find that the only remaining seat was next to a woman wearing the niqab, a long, loose, black outfit, revealing only the eyes, favoured by the conservative local Shi’a population.

Following something I’d read in the Lonely Planet, I remained standing, lest the lady be scandalised by having this unkempt foreigner sitting beside her. With little for me to hold on to, the bus lurched off into the chaotic lunchtime traffic, and the only thing that kept me stable was the firm hand that reached from beneath the folds of the niqab, grabbed me, and plonked me down on the empty seat. I got it then. Cultural sensitivity is nice, but not flying through the window of a meekrobus is better.

So in this city where pagans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and everyone else have crossed paths for thousands of years, I probably shouldn’t have been so flummoxed when a hijab’d young woman wished me Merry Christmas. I wasn’t quite sure what to say in return. My stammering attempts to find a gracious but non-Christian response earned a giggle from the locals.

It’s a simple enough attitude that tends to apply whenever friendship crosses religious boundaries, be it Damascus or Melbourne. You are celebrating a festivity; I am your friend; I do not share your belief, but I hope you and your family enjoy the occasion with all the benefits it brings you.

There is still room for sensitivity. Theologically, it’s a bit much to ask a Jewish person to wish a Christian a Merry Christmas; I guess that’s why they invented ‘Season’s Greetings.’

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing in Syria; it’s one of the most fought-over patches of earth in history, and there have been rough patches among the communities within living memory. But relations have been largely peaceful in recent times, as long as no one mentioned the government. A local friend told me with obvious emotion that Syria’s religious harmony was the national trait he took the most pride in. “Even when the peace with Israel comes,” he said, “I think Syrians will welcome the Jews, because we will know that the Jews who come to Syria will be the ones who want to get to know us.”

There was something so inspiring about his inevitability. “When the peace comes.” Not “if”.

Damascus even worked its magic on our own Muslim. Tony was a good young Aussie Mossie who politely stood out of the Kris Kringle organised by the visiting students. But he did join us for dinner on the night of the gift-giving. He made a small speech, saying he’d noticed how even the local Muslim community was getting into the spirit of goodwill, and declared that he’d decided he’d been too hardline. He’d bought presents for all of us.

Every Christmas in Australia, some local council or shopping centre is lambasted for not putting up Christmas decorations for fear of offending non-Christians, or the papers dig up some earnest imam declaring a “fatwa” against Christmas. (A fatwa is basically just a legal opinion, kids, largely ignored by those who don’t think the issuer has the authority. Santa will be OK.) And at times like these, I shake my head and think fondly of Damascus, to that magical Christmas I spent among the Muslims.

All that was long ago, before the current trouble. There’s nothing like a civil war and a flailing government to bring out internecine rivalry, and beneath the big, confused Arab Spring narrative, it’s happening. From here, I can’t be sure how much it’s happening, and how much Syrians are directly involved, as opposed to fighters that have drifted in from elsewhere. But I’ve heard enough to fear the worst.

It didn’t have to be this way. The original calls for reform came, with good reason, from all communities – Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, and even Alawite, the confession of the ruling minority. But as the government characteristically misjudged the dissent and over-reacted, and the international community dithered, the growing military element of the uprising came to be heavily Sunni, drawing strongly from a fundamentalist strain which has quietly taken seed in Syria’s countryside. And reports from the frontline suggest that the fiercest fighters are the jihadis, imported from or inspired by movements for whom a secular, multi-religious community is probably not Priority 1.

As the regime perseveres with its ferocious attacks upon rebellious areas and their communities, unverified reports seep out occasionally from rebel-held territory of attacks on Christians, Shi’ites or Alawites. The ethnically distinct Kurds of the north-east, historically a thorn in the government’s side, have at times also battled Arab-centric rebels. Smaller sects and tribes have lined up on one side or the other, or split. In this patchwork nation, these fractures will only make some of these communities – and some Sunnis who have not joined the uprising – cling more tightly to a government that they may or may not support, for fear of the devil they don’t know.

If the government prevails, its actions have ensured that fury and distrust will linger among the scarred communities for generations. If the government falls, it’s likely that some of the rebels will seek vengeance on those who did not support them; some will believe they are acting with impunity in the name of their God.

And that’s why I’m finding it hard to believe that I might one day return to the Syria that I so happily remember.

How tragically apt that this uprising started when schoolchildren graffitied a revolutionary slogan on a wall. If only Asad and his circle had seen the writing on the metaphorical wall, then perhaps change could have been more gentle, more inclusive, more peaceful… dare I say, more Syrian. The nation, like so many of its people, could have shown itself as a beacon of tolerance, a leading light of its volatile region, echoing the days when Christians and Muslims worshipped beside each other in Damascus’s beautiful Umayyad Mosque, a majestic former Byzantine church.

That is wishful and pointless thinking. It was never going to happen, and now 40,000 are dead.

At no previous Christmas have I more poignantly and desperately hoped for peace on earth and goodwill to all.


For a touching description of life in my old Damascus neighbourhood, read this piece by Malika Browne for the Guardian.