by Angelo Maddalena*
The story that began two weeks ago with the author’s journey and what the Free Syrian Army was and is today, ends with the inspirations that come from the Catholic-Syriac monastic community of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, re-founded in the 1980s by Father Paolo Dall’Oglio (who was kidnapped in Raqqa on 29 July 2013 and has not been heard from since). Read the first and second episodes.
PART 3 (Paolo Dall’Oglio)
In Paolo Dall’Oglio’s book “Il mio Testamento (My Legacy)”, which was published on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his kidnapping, there are two passages which I have chosen as a stimulus for reflection: “There is no obedience to the Holy Spirit without the exodus (hijra) from the familiar and the known, the emigration from the habitual, from customs and traditions”. In both Damascus and Aleppo, I ventured out of the restaurant for a walk. It took only a few dozen metres to move away from the “known and familiar” and meet hospitable men who invited me into a “house of hospitality”, as one of the older gentlemen playing cards and drinking tea and coffee called it. It was a ground-floor property owned by one of them, an Armenian who, as we later discovered, was also the owner of the Ararat restaurant where we dined. A colleague noticed that the restaurant had air conditioning and lots of lights, whereas there were few light bulbs in the streets nearby, and some of the alleys I explored on my own were completely dark.
In Aleppo something even more amazing happened: I went for a walk and found a group of friends and relatives sitting in a circle next to the steps leading up to the citadel, less than 100 metres from the restaurant where we were having lunch. They were listening to an elderly local gentleman playing the oud and singing, accompanied by women with veils on their heads, who sometimes made a vibrating tongue sound typical of these peoples. A young man played the darbuka. Another passage from the book “Il Nuovo Testamento (The New Testament)” reads as follows: “Rebellion is the same as obedience! One obeys honourably only if one is capable of rebelling, and those who cannot rebel do not know how to obey”.
In Krak Les Chevalier, a village in the Valley of the Nazarenes, where we stayed for four days, I discovered the world around us by entering the homes of two villagers. One of them had recharged the battery of my computer because in our accommodation the electricity came from a handmade generator that worked only a few hours a day. It would be worth delving into and exploring some significant details, which I cannot do in this context, and I am trying to do a bit more in the book I am writing.
A colleague I travelled with expressed her embarrassment and disgust at seeing poverty and barefoot children in certain streets: “I am ashamed to be a citizen of a country that approves the embargo that condemns these people to exhaustion.” She pointed out that those who travel often tend to adopt a narcissistic or introspective attitude, while an Italian of Iranian origin reminded me that amid these ruins, there is more vitality than we find in our Western countries: “At least here there is often a smile on the lips and a word or gesture of welcome.” This may seem rhetorical, but it isn’t. Perhaps, in all of this, there is a profound loss of autonomy and creativity that has emerged in recent decades in our increasingly delirious Western world, marked by anthropological decline and decadence. More than forty years ago, Ivan Illich taught courses to “decolonise the Western imagination”, especially for those who wanted to go to countries in the global south, so as not to perpetuate a colonialist attitude disguised as benevolence (even charity is part of the colonialist attitude, and it’s the most insidious aspect of it, according to Illich).
Differently, in his latest book, Alex Zanotelli recommends that the white man convert to voluntary poverty, listening to others and Mediterranean conviviality. Perhaps what Emile Cioran wrote decades ago is also true: “The West is a perfumed corpse”. As the awareness of one’s slavery is the basis of one’s liberation. To admit that the West is a fragrant corpse is to admit that you are spiritually dead. From this awareness, life can be reborn, resurrection can come. As in the case of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio and other Jesuit martyrs like him, mentioned in an article I found in the list of links on my smartphone at Amman airport when we regained Wi-Fi after days and days of isolation and disconnection.
The news I have found relates to Father Jacques Mourad, who shared community life in Mar Musa with Father Paolo for almost thirty years. Mourad is now the Archbishop of Homs, and in this article he recalls being kidnapped and held captive by ISIS in 2015, managing to escape after five months. He also recalls the Jesuit Frans Van der Lugt, who was murdered in the garden of his monastery in 2014. As for Paolo Dall’Oglio, he says: “If we were to collect the letters and messages he received, we could create an encyclopaedia”. Perhaps each one of us who wants to go to Syria can start from here, writing a message or a letter to Father Paolo, asking for the grace to meet the Syrian people. All this without fear of leaving the familiar and the unknown, but with the awareness that “there is no honourable obedience without rebellion”. And perhaps to read, if not a book by Father Paolo, at least a few pages of the document on self-defence and non-violence. I hope that this can happen to all those who embark on a journey to meet the other, in everyday life and in “holidays”, which should mean creating space inside, stopping, and freeing oneself from the burden of “the familiar and the known”, at least for a few days or even just for a few hours.
To learn more, read our Syria conflict factsheet
* Angelo Maddalena is a narrator of grassroots conflicts and popular struggles, from the Val di Susa (Susa Valley) in Italy to Algeria and Buenos Aires. His reports often become theatrical monologues with songs like “Cugini di Algeria fratelli di Kabylia” (Cousins of Algeria brothers of Kabylia); “Alla Maddalena” (at the Maddalena); “la favola del 3 luglio in Val di Susa” (the 3 July’s tale in Susa Valley). In 2018 he published an investigative book entitled “Un anno di frontiera” (A Year on the Border) about the incomplete reception of migrants in Ventimiglia. He writes for “Mosaico di pace” (Mosaic of Peace) and in June 2023 a reportage of his was published in the fortnightly magazine “Rocca”. From 2013 to 2022 he was a regular contributor to “la Bottega del Barbieri”, a blog dedicated to social and investigative journalism, for which he curated the column “L’Angelo del lunedì” (The Mondays Angel). His latest book is “Taccuino di viaggio interiore (Notebook of an Inner Journey)”, accompanied by the CD of songs “Tutti positivi” (All Positive). In September 2023 the documentary short film “Mi sembra di viaggiare con te. Vita da Angelo, un artista e la sua ricerca di senso (It feels like travelling with you. The life of Angelo, an artist and his search for meaning)”, directed by Gabriele Perni.