A piece from young America’s favorite news source, The Onion, recently came out, entitled “Poll: Majority of Americans Approve of Sending Congress to Syria.” It’s funny, see– because it exposes the gap between those who order soldiers to war and the actual consequences felt by those doing the ordering but not the marching. It’s funny because it plays on the widespread frustration felt by Americans toward their intransigent representatives and their lack of progress on real issues.
And it’s funny, finally, because these days, “Syria” means “war-torn,” means “another Middle Eastern war,” means civil war and sarin gas and bombs and missiles and kidnappings and executions. Which is why I had trouble laughing.
I’ve noticed that I have different reactions when someone says “Syria” and when someone says “سوريا” (Suria, its Arabic name). “Syria” feels like a knife in the gut, because of all the meanings just enumerated. And maybe it’s just because I follow more English news sources than Arabic ones, or maybe it’s because I mostly used Arabic while living in Syria, but سوريا, though it carries the taint of the current desolation, still feels to me somewhat like the beautiful historic country I visited. It still means Umayyad mosques, Fairouz in the morning, dabke, and cherry kebab, even though it also means destruction and flight.
A chaplain friend of mine set himself a project once of re-translating some of the gospels in very literal English, even to the point of rendering the names of people and places so that all the wordplay of the original would become clear. Jesus/Yeshua became “Jahsaves,” Judah became “Praiseland,” and Nazareth of Galilee, “Watchtower of Borderland.” In a way, it’s very helpful for me, since I do not understand biblical narratives to be strictly historical accounts (and don’t know Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic), to have these things spelled out to both add context and extra meaning. This conceit is used extensively in the Hebrew scriptures. My favorite instance of significant name meanings is the book of Hosea, in which the prophet’s family life serves as a symbol of God’s relationship to Israel. (This is the fun “wife of whoredoms” of the King James Version.) Hosea’s children by his wife of whoredoms are to be named “Loruhamah” (“Not pitied”) and “Loammi” (“Not my people”). But by the end of the second chapter, God is promising that, should fidelity be restored, God will “have pity” on Loruhamah and say to Loammi, “You are my people.”
Another such passage, arising from a similar context and within a similar metaphor, is found in Isaiah 62, where the prophet promises that “you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.” No longer will the nation be called Azubah (Forsaken), and the land be Shemamah (Desolate), but their new name upon divine union with the bridegroom will be Hephzibah (My Delight is in Her).
I understand biblical narratives as both documents of their historical context and as vessels of truth beyond fact. Therefore, I am very aware of the issues of copying-and-pasting passages like these into another time and place. Feminist theology, pluralism theory, and the friendly neighborhood Department of Family and Child Services might have something to say about Hosea’s case on its varying levels. I most definitely do not think that Syria is being punished for infidelity to the divine.
These caveats in place, though, I draw a real hope from passages like Hosea and Isaiah, just as people contemplating situations of brutality and oppression have done in other ages. I retain hope that someday, a joke like sending Congress to Syria just won’t make sense, because “Syria” won’t mean desolate, forsaken, not pitied, or not my people. It won’t mean hunger, refugees, torture, chemical weapons, or “those crazy people who can’t help but kill each other over there.” A joke about Ethiopian cuisine being imaginary won’t make sense because “Ethiopia” won’t mean famine. “Palestine” won’t mean exile or refugees or guerrilla warfare. “Colombia” won’t mean drugs and gangs.
Syria will get a new name (or rather a new meaning for its name), and mean general things like blessed and specific things like Nizar Qabbani and the Aleppo citadel and Byzantine churches. It’s a far hope, maybe even a fundamental, eschatalogical one, but that’s what prophets are for anyway.