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An Ugly Duckling Called Zaidel

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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The taxi ride to Zaidel was a 10-minute run that stirred up the dust along the rough, unpaved road. Once out of the cab, the wind continued the job. This large Syrian village seemed to be nothing more than a hodgepodge of new construction – half-finished if you were an optimist, half-unfinished if you were not.

Knowing how important photographs were to my story, I searched for some photogenic scene. I looked up and down the deserted streets, squinting in the sun and blinking against the whirling dust. I grimaced. Even the courtyard of the church, where the driver left me off, had a pile of sand and another of tiles, suggesting additional, as yet unfinished, projects.

It was lunchtime. My timing was poor. The village priest was probably having his repast at the home of a parishioner and, in a village of 5,000, I could not imagine finding him on my own. And with every street looking as nondescript as the other I thought it best to stay close to the church and wait.

And then, there they were, two young girls walking arm in arm, anchors for one another on this windy day. My opening line was part greeting and part question of confirmation: “Hello. Is this Zaidel?” Smiles blossomed on their faces as they answered: “Yes. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Hedging an answer I told them I was a journalist coming to see Father George Kassab, pastor of the Syrian Catholic church. Did they know where he was? A quick conversation and they agreed the best bet was to deliver me to Father Kassab’s sister’s home. There I learned the priest had gone to the nearby city of Homs for a funeral. A cup of coffee was served with an invitation to lunch.

The pace of life seemed slow and easy. It took but a single ring of the doorbell to change my views. Dallal had arrived, on time and ready to work. Dallal is completing a degree in music at the conservatory in Homs. She tutors the family’s son, Alaa, and his cousin in the el-’oud, the Arabic stringed instrument that lent its name to the English lute. Alaa’s name should also seem familiar. It is the first part of Alaa eddiin or, as we say in English, Aladdin. I sat and listened as the two boys played the Syrian national anthem on their ouds and then began their scales and finger exercises.

Another ring of the doorbell produced the priest with apologies for not being present that morning. The afternoon was mine. What would I like to see? When I ran through my list I wondered how there would be time to do justice to the good lunch that was appearing dish by dish.

My interest in history and archaeology and all things old stumped him and countered his lean toward all things new. I wanted to see the oldest building, the oldest church. He wanted me to see the brand new cemetery and suggested supper at the newest pizza spot. In the end these opposite approaches were reconciled, not by us, but by Zaidel itself. For Zaidel is both old and new.

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Tags: Syria Catholic Village life Revival/restoration