In 2008, my mother and I had travelled 10,000 kilometres away from home, right into the middle of the Middle East – Syria. We had spent the day touring the ancient ruins of the country, including Palmyra, once called The Bride of the Desert by the ancients.
For more than three hours we wandered in the noon heat underneath cerulean skies. We hopped from scalding rock to boiling sand underfoot, admiring the Roman temples, columns, and even the famous Palmyerean Warrior Queen, Zenobia’s mythical marks.
Our last stop of the day was in a small town called Ma’loula, nestled between the sandy mountains in the heart of the Syrian Desert.
Ma’loula means “entrance” in Aramaic, a dialect spoken by Christ and his disciples over two millennia ago. It is still spoken in this town where the clocks have seemingly halted.
As the bus drove through the only paved road in the town, I felt as if we were at the end of the world. I half expected to fall off the edge if I dare ventured out onto the outskirts of this town. Who knew that at the ends of the earth, heaven touched ground?
We would stop for the night in the only hotel in the city, Hotel Ma’loula. The bus took a winding, steep road, up, up, up until we sat atop a hill, overlooking the entire town.
Small apartments sat below, as if painted by a child. Blue, pink, and violet window and door frames bloomed in between the jagged rocks and mountain caverns. Windows and balconies were wide open, as music and talk poured out of them.
The evening air was refreshing, almost nippy, as we shuffled out onto the huge rooftop patio of the hotel. My mother and I sat down and ordered a nargilla pipe, a traditional water pipe that is heated by coals and used to smoke flavoured tobacco.
As I inhaled the rosemary-mint, I looked out over the city.
In the distance, a small figure made his way down a steep path alongside a mountain. He wore a robe and carried a staff, while the small white balls of fluff tumbled towards him. The shepherd and his sheep were coming home for the evening.
In the streets below, carved into the mountain landscape, stood a mosque and a church, a minaret and a steeple.
Men and women streamed out of the doors of both places of worship. Christian and Muslim, they met in the middle of the narrow streets. Women in colourful headscarves stopped to gossip. Men wandered over to each other, stopping to light a cigarette and chat, occasionally waving to others to come and join.
In a large group, they’d slowly stroll back home, hands behind their back, their feet swinging out in front of them, intently nodding and listening to the other.
They’d pass other town dwellers, sitting in the cafes and stores. Some were sitting on stools, leaning against ancient walls, reading the newspapers, sipping piping hot tea. Children were laughing and squealing, darting in between cars and parked donkeys.
I wasn’t sure if I had said it out loud or if somehow my unspoken prayers were answered. If there was hope for a perfect world, a world without war and hate, a world where ink would be spilt to talk of good and not misery, this place was it.
I turned my gaze. Atop one of the many churches stood a sculpture of the Holy Mother. Her hands stretched out, encompassing the entire town and its people, her eyes watchful and protective of those below.
I leaned back into the chair, taking another long drag of the pipe, the smoke coming out of my mouth and nostrils in a long stream.
A deep, hypnotic voice spilled out from above. It was the evening prayers coming from the minaret. The voice sang something foreign and something unknown. I looked at the statue again, her arms encircling us all. It’s as if she was singing to us, singing to us from a different pulpit, but in the language of peace and understanding.
Looking up into the darkened skies, with tears in my eyes, I could see God smile at me in the infinity of stars.