ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

An Ugly Duckling Called Zaidel

A profile of a Syrian village that is a diamond in the rough.

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.

Take its agriculture. The fields are full of wheat, the orchards abound with almond trees and the vineyards are gorgeous with grapevines. These crops, all with ancient histories, are grown today as cash crops destined for processing in modern plants. Those wheat fields, stretching as far as the eye can see, share the land with a string of transmission towers. The town’s chicken farm uses the latest techniques to ensure an egg production to be proud of and the winery is one of the biggest in the country.

My infatuation with the ancient kept me from scanning the town’s skyline. Old buildings are often no more than one story high, so my gaze was limited. My oohing and aahing over the stone walls with mud mortar brought smiles and looks of wonder. These pieces of the past are equivalent to the fieldstone barns of the Middle West of North America, picturesque to the outsider, anachronisms to the locals. Centuries-old millstones sat unnoticed under fruit trees; they were used solely as makeshift picnic tables for kids.

Only when I was taken to a rooftop did I see the Zaidel of the 20th century. I spotted solar panels and satellite dishes ready to deliver up America – dish by dish!

Again I fell prey to my assumption that this was Zaidel’s only link to the West. Did they think real life in America looked like this? The answer came as Father Kassab took me around to see the various projects underway. Classrooms for the church, a stone grotto for the nativity scene, a new cemetery.

“Ambitious,” I thought. “Where did the money come from?” I wondered. A good mind reader, Father Kassab informed me that many of Zaidel’s sons and daughters had left the town for greener pastures and would often send some of that “green” back.

“Where to?” I asked. I did not catch his answer. First time round it sounded like “Jaakzoonfiil.” On the repeat I understood: He was saying Jacksonville, as in Florida.

And so money from Jacksonville flows on a regular basis to Zaidel to help improve the village and keep the youth from leaving. Zaidel has friends in Beirut as well: PMP-CNEWA has contributed to the new wing of the church.

Father Kassab, who conducted this tour in his Toyota pickup, kept checking his watch. At 5:00 P.M. he was scheduled to celebrate liturgy at a special Thursday service for the women of the parish. He knew I would be pleased; the liturgy would be held in the old church.

As a few of the women led the assembly in chanting the responses, I thought a video of this liturgy would have been a hit in Jacksonville. The strength in those voices was remarkable and inspirational.

The priest’s message was delivered with lively gestures and many a smile. The flock before him were dedicated members of the church, loyal to home, family and faith. And even on a Thursday they wore their Sunday best.

After the service everyone walked over to the new church where a lounge provided space for the next activity, planning the annual May Outing. Many of the Eastern churches reserve the month of May for demonstrating respect and special devotion to the Virgin Mary. Everyone regretted that I would not be there to see how the church would be decorated. My regret was having to miss the outing. Their destination was the late fifth century Byzantine basilica of St. Simeon the Stylite, an octagonal church that surrounds the remains of the pillar on which St. Simeon lived and preached for 40 years.

A popular place of pilgrimage, this destination is some distance from Zaidel and much planning was needed. There were plenty of ideas to go around. A woman named Miriam held sway over the negotiations while Father Kassab played the referee. Coach versus vans, a packed lunch or a meal in a restaurant, a stay overnight or a one-day outing – the discussion continued over cups of coffee and a bowl of candy that was passed around as much to invite compromise as to extend hospitality. Decisions were made, mostly by Miriam, but everyone left happy.

There was just enough time before dark to tour the neighboring villages, also Christian. We passed some Bedouin and their sheep on the way. The referee role that Father Kassab had demonstrated with the women of the church had also been deployed to settle a serious problem between the Bedouin and the townspeople over grazing rights. With his intercession a clash between the two had been avoided.

After supper in the spanking new pizza restaurant in Homs, we hurried back to Zaidel to catch the flow of visitors that Father Kassab receives each evening. One strapping fellow named Ayman, who came with his fiancée, admitted good naturedly to an ulterior motive for the visit – Father Kassab’s Coffeemate. Arabic coffee, never served with milk, was abandoned for the evening and replaced by Nescafe, a natural with Coffeemate.

The next morning, as Father Kassab drove me to the bus station, I realized how wonderful Zaidel and the “Zaidelese” were. I asked him for one name of a Zaidel resident now living in Jacksonville.

Back in Wisconsin I gave the information operator a jingle and bingo, she gave me the number. I called and introduced myself. The man was so pleased he patched the call to share it with his sister. He was born in the U.S. No, he had never been to Zaidel but he had seen pictures and knew all about it. Did I know there were so many descendants from the village that Jacksonville is called “Little Zaidel?”

“Is Zaidel still beautiful?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered without pausing. In the end, ugly ducklings always are.

Marilyn Raschka, a long-time resident of Beirut and a frequent visitor to Syria, now writes from Wisconsin.

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