Do I have Syrian blood on my hands because I loved the country so blindly? I can't help but ask myself that question as I see the bloodshed in the streets today. I must have been naïve when I visited the country four years ago.
Friends couldn't believe my husband and I were going to Syria on our own, but my passion for ancient Roman cities was the driving force that over rode fear. When we drove off in an old bang of a car rented from Hertz Damascus, we hadn't a care in the world. Neither had we a whit of knowledge of the civil unrest bubbling up.
In 2008, I didn't see any signs of unrest or dissatisfaction among the Syrians. When we turned on to Route 5 north, we drove into a country where no one spoke English. They spoke kindness.
I knew that President Bashar al-Assad was seen by many as a dictator, but on television he seemed OK. With his pasted-on smile and neat set of teeth he seemed Western. Trained as an ophthalmologist in England, he had a pretty wife, a lawyer, by his side. Al-Assad's happy, smiling face stared out from billboards everywhere. In Damascus, with its fierce devotion to the Blessed Mother, he was sometimes pictured alongside her.
No one took any notice of us. Yet when our car broke down just outside of Homs, Syrians were there to help. Going so far as to get me a chair and an umbrella to shield my fair Irish skin from the sun. When we were lost, looking for a ruined agora, a group of elders waving their arms and speaking in Aramaic set us right.
Just to be Syria, in the cradle of civilization, was exciting. Iraq was next door. A right turn off any northern road would get us to Baghdad as the big road signs said. For a moment we thought of driving towards the Tigris and Euphrates River just to say we were near. Foolish yes, but intrepid travelers think this way.
The most striking factor was that people seemed content. In the great open markets of Aleppo and Damascus, Syrians tout la monde were happily eating handmade ice cream and drinking fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice under crumbling Roman arches.
Even more interesting were women of all ages buying naughty knickers and whirly girly beaded bras more risqué than anything Tony's girls wore at the Bada Bing Club. In stall after stall, Britney Spears wannabe's stood next to veiled, black garbed women wearing long black gloves buying saucy undies from benevolent old men.
Marital sex is robustly celebrated and encouraged by the State. Al-Assad encourages a two-child policy. Women, sometimes mothers with daughters, search out enticing undergarments for their husband's eyes only, while husbands and children eat cream cones and stroll around souks bigger than any American mall, that sell everything from bull's testicles to Barbie Dolls.
Yet Sacred interests me as well as Profane. When I read that the girdle of the Blessed Mother resides in Homs I had to see it. The Lonely Planet Guide said this braded, textile belt of woven wool and silk was found under the altar of the Church of Al-Zunnar (Girdle of the Virgin) in 1953.
It's believed this intimate article of apparel has survived intact since Mary's ascension into Heaven! Intrigued, the Catholic child in me wondered why the Blessed Mother would leave her girdle in Homs -- Homs where the streets now run red with blood.
Down a side street, in the old Christian quarter, a small church -- cuckoo clock in design -- contains this sacred object. On the altar, flanked by Marian mosaics, an elaborate sunburst of a monstrance contains this small, tightly wound rope about two inches wide that looks like a lock of hair. Could it have shrunk from too many washings? Could Mary have had such a small waist?
The church, the monstrance and the girdle had a sweetness bridging on bizarre. And I had to laugh thinking here I was in Syria, looking at the Blessed Mother's girdle.
Now my heart breaks when I see such unabashed bloodshed on the news. A father burying his seven-year-old son in a mass grave under the cover of night, so as not to be shot himself. A mother screaming a scream my Irish self could never muster up, because her two sons were shot as well and might die.
I ponder the Blessed Mother. Is her girdle still in Homs? Has it been spirited away for safekeeping? I can't but think is it not time for a miracle -- an appearance -- in that dusty alley, from one who has shown up in countless grottoes and hillsides? Wouldn't that shake up the world and bring some semblance of peace to Syria? It might. Or am I still a naïf?