On August 14, on the eve of the Assumption, volunteers had the chance to participate in the traditional carnival of Marmarita in the Valley of the Christians. Cancelled in 2020 because of the coronavirus, this year it attracted a large crowd, which paraded through the streets, guided by a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Early in the morning, we welcome Ramès, driver and friend of the association, Firas, engineer of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient in Homs and his daughters as well as some Syrian volunteers and employees for a cup of coffee. The team gathered and the bags strapped, we boarded the cars and left for the Valley of the Christians.
After a short hour's drive, we arrive in Al-Nassara, a small village at the entrance to the Valley of the Christians, where we are warmly welcomed for breakfast by the family of George, a Syrian volunteer. While the scent of tea, labneh, hummus and fresh fruit wafts through the air, George's parents tell us about the history of the Valley and its importance to the Christian communities of Syria.
Long inhabited by Christians, the Valley of the Christians (Wadi al-Nassara in Arabic) is a rural region in western Syria, halfway between the city of Homs and the Mediterranean coastline and close to the northern Lebanese border. The majority of its inhabitants are Greek Orthodox and come from the Christian villages of northern Lebanon. Their migration to Wadi al-Nassara began in the middle of the 19th century, during the massacres of the Christians of Mount Lebanon by the Druze. During the Syrian civil war, the presence of Christians in this valley increased drastically, so much so that today there are more than 200,000 Christians in the valley, compared to 80,000 at the beginning of the conflict. Protected by a pro-government militia and benefiting from the military advantages that a mountainous terrain can offer, it served as a refuge for many Christians and Alawites.
While the anecdotes continue, I take the opportunity to isolate myself to contemplate the view. The valley is resplendent. From east to west, we see olive trees, vineyards, apricot trees and flowers. This concentration of vegetation, colors, life reminds me of the Mediterranean, the South. On the other side of the plain, the Krak des Chevaliers rises majestically. Immediately, I am struck by the unique architecture of this fortress and I am suddenly plunged back into the time of the crusades, the Templars, Saladin, a time whose stories are told. Between the Krak des Chevaliers, a living witness to the presence of the Templars in the East, and the Mediterranean air, the term "mare nostrum" becomes immediately clearer. I realize that we, Europeans, share the same sea, the same history, the same culture and the same fate as the Syrian people.
My reveries aborted by the call of departure, I join the village of Marmarita, located a few kilometers away. After 10 minutes of travel, Zayn, a Syrian volunteer, welcomes us in her apartment. As soon as we put down our luggage, we realize that we forgot to take something essential: water. As it is 40°C, we all go together to a restaurant located below the building where we will spend the night. This three-storey restaurant, located on the hillside, offers us a breathtaking view.
We see hills and a plain covered with vegetation, a fresh water lake and we even distinguish, on the horizon, the Mediterranean coastline.
We sit down at a table in the lower part of the restaurant. To the rhythm of the cicadas, under a ceiling of vines and surrounded by trees in which the birds come to seek a little shade, we taste Syrian specialties that we accompany, with the choice of water, beer or arak. In the course of the afternoon, while the cigarettes accumulate in the ashtray and the discussions flow on both sides, we come to talk about the situation of the young people in Syria. Several volunteers talk about the years of war and tell us that they have lost relatives, friends or family in the conflicts. One girl confides to us: "On several occasions, students were bombed or shot as they left the university. I continued to go there every morning, to continue my life as if everything was normal. But nothing was normal. Every morning when I woke up, I knew that this might be the last day." These words, with their extreme detachment and clarity, do not leave us indifferent. I think back to all the times I complained on college mornings about having to get up, rush my coffee, and get on a bus that I couldn't find a seat on. It all seems so absurd...
After a few cups of tea, a few glasses of arak and a few puffs of hookah, it was time for the traditional carnival parade.
While returning to the center of the village, Firas tells us the origin of the carnival. "In 1975, on the feast of the Assumption, a group of young people spontaneously disguised themselves and built a small float in order to go up to see the Virgin overlooking the valley. Over the years, the event has grown to become a major event for Syrians, who pass it on from generation to generation. Cancelled during the civil war, it resumed in 2019, before being cancelled in 2020 for health reasons." This day is therefore particularly symbolic for a village, a people, a nation, aspiring to overcome ten years of suffering, death, tears and blood. Perhaps this is the reason for the rich presence of spectators...
While crossing the village of Marmarita, I am surprised by the number of persons who attend the event. Everywhere on the roofs, in front of the stores, on the balconies of the buildings, families, children, old people coming from all the region are ready for the parade. The children are dressed up, the women put on their best clothes and the men put on their Sunday suits. Managing with difficulty to make our way through the crowd, we finally find a place to watch the parade. Perched on top of a wall, we see the last preparations that accompany the excitement of some, probably the old men of the neighborhood, eager to show their village in its best costum parade.
From our vantage point, we see richly decorated floats, groups with carefully prepared choreographies and the village band marching past.
Following this procession, all the villagers, women and men, children and old people, walk in a festive way, to the rhythm of the music and the applause. United in the same celebration, we feel a proud village, determined to show the best of itself.
The parade over, we go back to Zayn's apartment where the evening continues until late in the night. After a short night, spent for some on the balcony, we leave Marmarita, our heads full of memories and our hearts definitely Syrian.
If this weekend allowed us to learn something, it is the admirable resilience of the Syrians. Bruised by ten years of bloody war, during which everyone lost a relative, a friend or a brother, impoverished by an unprecedented economic crisis, accentuated by international sanctions and by the COVID-19 crisis, the Syrians have not lost their sense of celebration, of communion and their devotion to the Virgin. We felt the aspiration of an entire people to peace, to union and their deep desire to overcome the traumas, however well rooted, of a bloody war.
Maxime, volunteer in Syria.