Al-Qalamoun is a Syrian mountain range extending from the eastern mountains of Lebanon. It is also the access point for Damascus, to the north, and a border crossing with harsh and steep, rocky terrain that is home to a number of small towns. Al-Qalamoun can perhaps be considered one of Syria’s hidden treasures, with stories and anecdotes hidden among its rocks, valleys and highlands.
Al-Qalamoun’s towns might be a model for peace and coexistence. It is here where people confront strife and where everyone stands together against the dangers that beset their homes and the region in general — from al-Tal, to Rankous, Saidnaya, Maaloula, Jirod, al-Qatifa, Yabrud, Nabak and Deir Attieh. These cities are quiet, but solid as a rock. They gave the world the Aramaic language, and to this day there are monasteries and historic churches in Saidnaya, Maaloula and Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi in Nabak. Those towns, along with neighboring towns in Lebanon, gave South America prominent leaders, such as former Argentine president Carlos Menem, originally from Yabrud.
Reaching Yabrud is not easy, as it is not off the highway that connects Damascus and Homs. This highway has been the site of clashes between the regime army and the opposition. Yabrud, a quiet town with a population of about 40,000, has succeeded in distancing itself from the lawlessness that has affected most of the country. There are no government soldiers in Yabrud. They are stationed on the road leading to town, which suffers from a lack of electricity, communications and fuel. Even so, Yabrud seems well organized. Its judicial body is able to resolve disputes, and its courts and the police are also functional. The armed opposition is abiding by the directives of the town council, so the town has succeeded in controlling the so-called revolution’s merchants — those who have taken advantage of the situation for their own interests. The town’s inhabitants refuse to replace one tyrant with another. It is worth noting that there is no trace whatsoever of tensions between Muslims and Christians in the town, despite the chaos that has jolted the country.
Yabrud’s inhabitants take offense when somebody asks about their religion. They are proud to be a model of Christian-Muslim coexistence. They cite several instances when Christian priests and Muslim sheikhs stood together and took initiatives to promote coexistence throughout the al-Qalamoun region. Moreover, civil society acts in the absence of authority, except that of the local councils. This is why life is proceeding apace in this town surrounded by danger from all sides.
Lately, there has been an increase in smuggling through the mountains nearby. Fuel, weapons and fighters are being trafficked, which has been met with harsh military measures at times. But the inhabitants have managed to avoid the chaos and stand together against anything that targets their community.
The same goes for the neighboring towns of Qarat, Nabak and Deir Attieh. The latter has a private university with 5,000 students that has not been spared bombardment; shells have fallen on the university during work hours, yet the university keeps functioning. Some consider going to university every day a victory in itself. The student body is divided between supporters and opponents of the regime, but perhaps without realizing it, both sides have agreed on the necessity of continuing their educations despite the death surrounding them on all sides.
It is the same for Deir Attieh’s neighbors in the town of Nabak, which has welcomed thousands of displaced persons and represents a model of how life should continue. The Italian monk Paolo Dall’Oglio restored the monastery of Mar Musa al-Habashi and settled there. He learned Arabic and became part of Nabak, opening the monastery’s doors to all sects and religions before declaring his position on the popular protests. This position was not accepted by the regime, which asked him to leave. The doors of the monastery remained open, however.
Not far from Yabrud lies Maaloula, home of the Aramaic language. It is an essential destination for Christian tourism. Its inhabitants still speak Aramaic, which they teach at their schools. Here too, Muslims and Christians live together, and the bells of the Mar Sarkis and Bacchus monastery ring every day, calling for peace and calm. The town, which has distanced itself from the battles and clashes, has opened its doors for thousands of displaced people from different regions. Many of its inhabitants refused to leave just because minorities are supposedly in danger.
In this town, every homeowner can tell you the history of his house going back hundreds of years and about the relationships among the neighboring towns with regard to agriculture and local industries. Others remember how thousands of Lebanese and Iraqis arrived at Maaloula to pray for peace during the July 2006 war and the bloody civil war. The stones of Maaloula’s monasteries are despondent today. They miss the visitors, the celebrations and festivals. Today there are only prayers as bloodshed in the country continues.
Saidnaya, Maaloula’s neighbor, did not hesitate to open its doors for those running away from death. It has a peaceful atmosphere after rejecting sectarianism. The town’s inhabitants merely identify themselves by saying, “I am from Saidnaya,” without mentioning their religious affiliation. They have silenced calls for religious strife in this area, whose inhabitants — be they Muslim or Christian, for or against the regime — assert that they will not allow their region to be destroyed. Amid all that, the most important question is, to what extent will al-Qalamoun’s towns, cities and villages be able to stand fast in the face of sectarian fighting and the madness of war?
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