Monday, 18 November 2013

Why do we even care about our Syro-Maronite identity?

Wanting to revive a language and culture is never an easy thing. And having people ask you the same questions over and over again is not that fun either; although, it's an opportunity to inspire others to get involved. The two most common questions I've often received are:

  1. "How do you even know about this? Our grandparents barley knew about it!"
  2. "Why?Why can't you accept that change occurs and we must adapt to the new?"

The answer to the first is unique to every individual who's found an interest in Syriac. What led me to find an interest in the Syriac language, history and tradition was a search for identity.

Growing up in a Maronite region of Lebanon, I recognized the deep-rooted cultural and even ethnic uniqueness that my people had. I knew it was different than what I saw in non-christian regions of Lebanon but I payed little attention to what that meant at the time.

It was only after I left Lebanon and moved abroad that I began to remember these unique traits Maronites possessed in Lebanon. It began with the assumptions people abroad made; the way they would lump Maronites in with Arabs and assign to me a culture which was very foreign and which I knew was not what I experienced during my life in Lebanon.

Naturally I revolted against this falsehood of who Maronites were, especially as I saw my own relatives, who had lived abroad all their life and never experienced Maronite culture in the motherland falling to this lie and rejoicing in their "Arab-ness".

It led me to ask myself, firstly, why I didn't agree with everyone else. What was it that differentiated us?
Well it was too obvious for me that there was no such thing as Maronite Arabs; I knew what the Maronite lifestyle in Lebanon looked like and it was completely opposed to this fabricated description of Maronites (or all Lebanese which lumped Maronites in there) that I found abroad. And so I set myself to proving this intrinsic gut-instinct I had telling me this foreign Arab culture is not for you.

The answers I found however, were not just satisfying, but were more than I had ever expected! I'd discovered an identity that was so precious that I had no idea why we weren't all taught who we were from infancy! An early Christian peoples! With a sacred tradition, with a mother-tongue the same as that which our Lord used on earth! Discovering this truth made sense to our culture which I'd known was unique.

I'll answer the second question: Why is it such big deal?

Perhaps if I'd discovered a different identity I would have been less enthusiastic to push for revival. But Maronites need to know that their identity is so important it is almost sacred.

I often consider how we as Catholics regard relics of saints or even of Christ; these objects that the holy used we wear as protection or store in safe places to marvel at. I saw the language Christ used as a sort of relic too. The same words and similar pronunciations that came out of his sacred mouth, Syriacs still use.

It is not a matter of disrespecting the Arab culture but rather, if you are Christian, why give up your own Christian-rooted culture for one that is not?

Our history is one to be proud of and not to forget! We were such early Christians that our true culture is centered around our faith; not just the Syriac language but our architecture our celebrations our greetings and, for Maronites, our geography. The terrain of Mount Lebanon which is so ancient and mentioned many times in the Old Testament is our homeland. Everywhere you look on every hill our faith is marked by crosses standing strong. Our valleys are filled with hermitages and ancient churches with Syraic inscriptions. Even the names of our villages are in Syriac; a language that sadly we do not understand anymore. Do we feel proud throwing all this sacredness in the bin? Do we rejoice in adopting a culture which is not ours and which carries none of our faith in its roots?

Our identity is something to be so proud and so fiercely defensive of that it should remain crystal clear to all Maronites; we should not have to move abroad or experience some disaster for us to go searching for it. We shouldn't have to argue amongst ourselves of whether or not it's significant because, for someone passionate about their faith, and wanting to give their children an identity to carry on with pride, it is very significant.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent essay. I only wish more Maronites, whether in Lebanon or in the diaspora, would come to realize the truth. It's very sad that they've been systematically deprived, even by the Maronite Church over the past 50-some years, of their own identity.

    I also think it's worth noting that we Maronites are not strictly from what is today Lebanon. The original Deir Maroun was located near Brad which is quite close to Aleppo. Many of our forebears fled from the valley to the rugged mountains to escape persecution particularly from the Byzantines, and ultimately the Arab invaders. But not all fled. There was ever a Maronite presence, particularly in Aleppo which, for many years even into the early 20th Century, was one of the most important dioceses in the Maronite Church. And of course the Blessed Massabki Brothers hailed from Damascus. In recent years an Antonine monastery was established at Brad to revive Maronite monasticism in Syria after an absence of at least 100 years.

    And I might also note that there has been some success in spurring a revival of our ancestral language. This is actually more noticeable among our brethren in Israel than in Lebanon or else where, although the Antonine monks do teach it in several locations there. The new bishop of Haifa, Mor Mousa El-Hage, himself an Antonine monk, is reportedly very supportive of the efforts in Israel.