Once Upon a Time in Maaloula

It was December 2010, slightly after Christmas, that I went to Maaloula as part of a two day stay in pre-war Syria.

The village was nestled up the mountains some 30 minutes away from Damascus. I had no idea what to expect there, other than some difference from the ¬†souks and mosques that their country’s capital had to offer. I should have known that Maaloula would be drastically different – the driver had been talking a language I wasn’t understanding all the way. It was Aramaic.

Once upon a time, the Maaloula I visited was a calm village, part of a calmer and oppressed country. The people there seemed poor. They also seemed especially devout, asking us to take off our shoes as we visited Christian shrines for saints that Christians in Lebanon worshipped. The town’s houses were tightly packed together, haphazardly built, in a way that climbed up the mountain that overlooked the village. A statue of the Virgin Mary could be seen atop those mountains. I’m sure they figured she’d be protecting their homes.

I walked around the hills next to the village, patches of snow from a storm a few days prior still visible. The townspeople looked at us warily: just another batch of tourists who are coming and going, expecting some funky eccentricities. A few children were busy playing football on the tarmac across the street. They asked us to play but we didn’t have the luxury of living where they did. So we kept looking around.

The monastery we visited, Deir Mar Takla, where the relics of a renowned Saint reportedly lay, was not very different from several ones I had seen in Lebanon. But I guess it’s always more interesting just because it represents a minority, something different in the vast sea of sameness you had come to associate with the Syria I was visiting back then. I never thought that desolate town, huddled in those cold Syrian mountains, would become the focal point of Lebanese politics almost three years later.

I never gave Maaloula a second thought until today when I was told that the Syrian civil war had reached it and I was told that I should care about the lives of its people, just because they are Christians, more than the lives of all the Syrian civilians who have died since whatever’s taking place in Syria started back in 2011. There are varying levels to the value of a human life.

Maaloula became the centerpiece of a long-used argument revolving around the core foundation of Christian victimhood, because the presence of Christians in this region cannot be guaranteed but by dictators and oppressors. Let’s always choose the lesser evil.

I was also invited to #ActForMaaloula today, an admirable effort and all. But I have to wonder: aren’t Muslim villages worthy of me acting for them? Who am I supposed to act for in Maaloula exactly fully knowing that 90% of its people have apparently left their town? Am I supposed to act for the Churches that have not been touched according to all news services? Am I supposed to act just for the sake of acting so I can tell the entire world that I care about the likes of those who happened to be born into my religion just because they worship Jesus and don’t fast Ramadan?

Christians in this region are and apparently will always be dhimmis, precisely because of this rhetoric, whether they like it or not. They’re dhimmis because they’re always forced to ask for protection. They’re dhimmis because they’re always treated differently than the countries of which they are part. They’re dhimmis because they relish in the rhetoric that they are different, that their lives are more precious, that one needs to act for their sake but not the sake of others just because they have carried a Cross.

Being against the regime next door doesn’t mean we sympathize with the Islamists. It doesn’t mean some Lebanese politicians, who remember the never-ending Christian victimhood argument listed above whenever they’re bored, get to patronize us about not doing enough for our “Christian brethren.” I refuse to be blinded to the fact that this talk about extremists and Islamists and Nusra and Al Qaeda did not exist in 2011. I refuse to be forced to forget that the talk about a ruthless regime, which can send the cold, penis-less corpse of a thirteen year old to his mother’s doorstep, has existed since the 1980s. I refuse to be forced to fall to that ridiculous notion that Christians are special and must be protected because Israel considers them competition.

I used to think the fear for Christians in the region is overrated. I don’t think that way anymore. But I also think that the entire way the issue is being dealt with will only lead to further decimation of those Christians and further increase of the fear they are forced to live in. You want to protect the Christians of Syria because you love them so? You fight for a political solution that involves stopping the regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of its people and with it those Islamists we all fear whose existence stems from that precise regime.

One more thing before I bring you full circle.

The Syrian regime protects Christians, sure. The rebels are creatures who want to behead Christians and only do that, sure. The following is not in Maaloula.

Lebanon, courtesy of the Syrian army.

Lebanon, courtesy of the Syrian army.

Whose protection am I supposed to ask for now?

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The Aoun Paradox

Michel Aoun

You should know by now that I’m as close to a supporter of FPM leader Michel Aoun as there is hope to explain the Holy Trinity.

Even though I’m not closely following Lebanese politics lately, I was surprised when Mr. Aoun came out of his parliament bloc’s meeting, attacking the Lebanese president left and right.

I remembered how almost two years ago, he was defending this president, saying that we need to give him more rights to fortify the role he – the representative of Maronites – has.

I’m all for increasing the administrative powers of the Lebanese president. If you ask me, the Taef agreement took too much away for the president to be of any essential need to the country. The president is more than a referee and more powers would allow him to assert his role more.

This change in stance got me thinking once again.

The most obvious paradox Mr. Aoun has had was his Syria stance. Back in 2005 and before, he openly declared his opposition to the Syrian regime, accusing it of even killing Prime Minister Hariri. Fast-forward a few months and this totally changes… a year later, he is visiting the Syrian president as a guest of honor. What’s even worse, I remember how a guy by the name “Jamil El Sayyed” used to creep everyone out. The ruthless man to whom the disappearance of many activists against the Syrian regime was staunchly opposed by Mr. Aoun. Up until very recently, of course, where they have become allies.

Mr. Aoun tries to defend his shift in opinion by saying we were “too harsh” to Syria in the first place. Personally, I don’t have anything against Syria as a country and people. However, I know way too many people who died trying to defend the country against the Syrian regime, which was trying to get Lebanon to become an unofficial Syrian province. Too many people who support Aoun as well gave everything they had to protect Lebanon against the Syrian regime. Is Aoun’s opinion shift justified by the argument he gave? Not even close. The main reason he switched sides? Hariri did not agree to allocate to him the Christian seats he was asking in the 2005 parliamentary elections.

What I believe Mr. Aoun is trying to achieve by this change in stance is a sort of coalition of regional minorities, believing that this is the best way to protect Lebanese Christians – and regardless of what he might say, Aoun is a sectarian person. By uniting a portion of Christians, the vast majority of the Shiites and now a big portion of the Druze population in Lebanon with the ruling Alawites in Syria, he believes that this would create the best front to fight the almighty regional devil: The growing Sunni influence.
What Mr. Aoun does not remember, however, is that Mr. Assad, the Syrian president, while being “kind” to his own people, will not offer anything close to that to the Lebanese Christians, as history has already taught us. Moreover, to think that someone like Hassan Nasrallah has had a serious paradigm shift since the days of him thinking Christians were “invadors to Muslim areas”, then Mr. Aoun becomes seriously delusional.

Which brings me back to the point I first mentioned: presidency. It has become Aoun’s lifetime dream to become the Lebanese president. When he saw this dream will not happen in his previous alliances, he simply switched it. Anything for the cause, right?

Aoun also believes in “change and reform”. He believes it is the way forward for the country. And it most definitely is. However, almost nothing he has done so far really signals “change and reform” and yet he preaches about it wherever he goes. It’s like a prostitute claiming virginity. Charbel Nahhas, current minister of telecommunications, even tried to ban Skype!
Part of his “change and reform” ideology is to eradicate the idea of feudalism from Lebanese politics: No more to the son inheriting his dad’s legacy and going forward with it, etc.
Aoun has no sons. He has, however, son in laws to whom he is passing down the mantle. His nephew is a parliament member in his bloc, his other son in law is head of his TV station and his daughter is head of his political bureau. I believe with all of this, it seems that the concept of feudalism has escaped Mr. Aoun.

So this is our paradox. This is a man who believes he is allowed of cursing whoever he wants, take his followers wherever he pleases and still believe he is correct in everything he does.
I blame Mr. Aoun’s followers… they seem to have forgotten why they became supporters of him in the first place. They seem to have forgotten the shared values they have with the movements they are cursing today. And for that reason, they are demoted from the a supporter to a follower. I have many friends who are FPM supporters. Some of them still are, others have seen a change in the man they once supported – one they do not approve anymore. Many of those supporters have been imprisoned, tortured, beaten down just because they had the courage to speak up. To those supporters, we can only be grateful. Supporters are critical.Followers simply follow.

Mr. Aoun switched sides in 2005, ruining everything his supporters and other free men of the country had tried to achieve for 15 years: true independence. The historical March 14, 2005 protest set the bar high for freedom fighters in the region. More than half of the Lebanese population had gone down to the streets to reclaim their country. And just because this man’s greed saw it fit, he decided that the spilled blood, the ruined prides, the oppressed freedoms were not enough to continue this movement to the end. I can only imagine where we would have been right now had Aoun remained somewhat sane in 2005. We would have brought Lahoud down, elected a president that represented us all – maybe Mr. Aoun even – and worked for the past six years of letting this country become one that we all deserve.
Apparently not. And why’s that? Because one man’s delusion is another country’s dark ages.