17 April 2009, Syria
To All Friends Everywhere,
Twenty-eight Quakers and friends of Friends met for the Europe and Middle East Young Friends (EMEYF) Spring Gathering 2009 in Syria from April 10 to April 17. We travelled from nine European and three Middle Eastern countries, coming together to consider and reflect on the theme “Faith, the Divine, and the Other” through small group discussions, Meetings for Worship, walks, and exploration of other religions. The group grew closer through these spiritual activities and communal living, music, dyeing Easter eggs, bonding in the hammams (baths), and watching a sunset over Damascus.
Our time in Syria was marked by moving between stillness and busyness, between quiet and activity. Our accommodation near rural Sednayah allowed us the opportunity to appreciate the open space and tranquility, contrasting with the old city of Damascus with its bustling ancient market full of colourful cloths, spices, soap, and sweets. In the historic Umayyad and Sayyida Zeinab Mosques we encountered prayer interspersed with lively family activity, an insight for those of us who worship in the tradition of a silent meeting and an opening to discourse on how our faiths interrelate. Many of us were deeply moved by the tenderness and unreserved emotion in prayer as well as the overwhelming warmth and love offered to us by individuals.
We were fortunate enough to learn from Sunni and Shi’ite Imams and in turn share our faith with them. These meetings allowed us to explore some common stereotypes of Islam. Many of us still struggle with concepts of gender roles in Islamic societies. In response to our lingering questions, we arranged to speak with a female women’s rights advocate. Her experiences as a teacher, lawyer and mother challenged our earlier conceptions and presented some of the complexities of male and female roles.
We also had the opportunity to share in our differing experiences of faith with figures in the Byzantine Catholic and Maronite Catholic traditions. We attended Easter Mass at Mar Sarkis, a 4th century Byzantine church in a village whose residents speak modern Aramaic, a language which has its roots in the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. During the service we were particularly moved by the haunting beauty of a lone female singer echoing throughout the stone sanctuary. Following Mass, we were welcomed at the monastery of Deir Mar Musa, where we were humbled by both the spirit of hospitality and the power of the mountainous landscape. Their friendliness and openness was characteristic of the hospitality and generosity of our Middle Eastern hosts throughout the week.
Through several group discussions, we have gained a better understanding of the reasons behind some of the violent conflicts in this region whilst maintaining our faith in the common humanity of all. A representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) highlighted the desperate situation of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees currently living in Syria. Two Friends with experience in the Middle East shared their witness of Quaker work in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. These seminars on Quaker history in the Middle East and the Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) in Amman, Jordan opened discussion about nonviolence, definitions of peace, and how conflict with ‘the other’ can be better addressed.
Throughout this Gathering we have felt the erosion of the boundaries between ourselves and “the other”. With this in mind, we would like to close with a Surra from the Holy Qur’an (24:35):
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is a niche and within a lamp: the lamp is in a glass: the glass as it were a shining star kindled from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor west, whose oil is nigh luminous though fire scarce touched it. Light upon light! Allah does guide whom He will to His light: Allah sets forth parables for men: and knows all things.”
EMEYF Spring Gathering, 2009