Archbishop of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia Malkhaz Songulashvili (right), and Dr Taj Hargey, Imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, (left) pictured at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Oxfordshire, December 20th 2012. Tomorrow Archbishop Songulashvili will give a Friday prayer sermon at Imam Hargey’s mosque, the first time that a non-Muslim has delivered the Friday sermon in a mosque. (Credit: Susannah Ireland / The Independent)
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Day One: it is raining cats and dogs. Ala and I have a houseguest, Kyrion, a fellow Georgian from Tbilisi, where he served Patriarch Ilia II as a hypo-deacon for more than 20 years. Now he is an Archimandrite of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. He is in his early forties. He is a very amusing and kind character. He is a monk, which means being totally withdrawn from worldly pleasures. Yet his main hobby is shopping…. he dines on coffee, cigarettes and Black Label whisky. He has become part of our family. With him, and a Saudi friend of ours, we attended the other day a Christmas carol service at Christ Church Cathedral. We arrived late. Even though we had tickets, all the places were already taken. I looked around to find places for Ala, Kyrion and our Saudi friend. It was not easy. The service was about to start. With the help of sidesmen I managed to find three places but I could not find a place for myself. There were no more seats available. I was about to give up when the chief verger appeared in front of me and whispered in my ear:
“The Dean wants you to process with the bishop and clergy, if you do not mind.”
Of course I did not. Now I could have a seat with the clergy! The service of Nine Lessons and Carols was absolutely beautiful. This year the choir sang rather unusual modern carols which added a touch of post-modernity to the service. After the service all four of us were invited to a reception by the Dean and his wife, who have recently visited Georgia and enjoyed the hospitality of a small Baptist Church in the city of Gori.
Kyrion did not come for Christmas-night mass. He though it would be too much religion for a day. Ala and I went to the midnight service with our ecumenical friends, Imam Dr Taj Hargey, his Unitarian wife, Dr. Jacky Woodman, Orthodox Scholar Dr. Simon Crisp, and his Charismatic Christian wife, Mrs Linda Crisp. After the midnight service the Imam and his wife came to our place for drinks and we spent the rest of the night discussing religion, politics, culture and human relationships. It was a remarkable Christmas night. Next day Dr. Crisp came and took us to his place for a traditional Christmas dinner. Yet another lovely English experience for Kyrion.
Today Ala is not feeling well. The rainy weather affects her mood and makes her mildly depressed. Yet she continues reading her books in psychology and theology. I do not mind rainy weather at all. I quite like walking in the narrow mediaeval streets of Oxford when it rains. Obviously I have an umbrella, which I keep losing and finding over and over again. The weather is good to me but I cannot go anywhere. Everything is closed. When I say everything I do not really mean everything. What I mean is something else. All the libraries and colleges are closed. Without them Oxford seems empty and soul-less. I feel restless, like a wild beast in a cage, except I do not have much space in our little flat to prowl; and the Internet does not work properly, which upsets all three of us.
Ultimately I manage to get Kyrion to go out and have a little walk around the city centre. He does not like walking, but suddenly his mind is attracted to the idea of doing some shopping and he agrees to come. Ala prefers to stay at home. It’s too cold and damp for her.
Kyrion and I browse around the city centre. He is looking for slippers. So we go from one shop to another but do not buy any because he does like either the price or the style of them. Finally we go to the covered market and buy fish and meat.
When we return it’s already dark. Ala is curled up in her bed and is dozing. Kyrion embarks on cooking. He politely pushes me out of the little kitchen we have and starts cooking.
While he cooks I decide to read and answer some e-mails. I open the inbox and find a letter I had been anxiously waiting for. This is a letter from Syria. I had not heard from my Syrian friend for several weeks and I was concerned about him. I felt helpless. I started telling all my close friends of my anxiety about him and his family, his wife and ten year-old boy. He did not answer my mail. I had no other way to contact them. They live in the besieged city of Aleppo, where the situation has gone from bad to worst: shooting, killing, bombing, the cold, blackouts.
“Perhaps their electricity is cut off and this is the reason my friend cannot reply to my e-mails,” I kept telling Ala. But at the bottom of my heart I also thought of all kinds of bad scenarios. My friend is a Christian and to be Christian in the besieged city of Aleppo is not the safest thing in the world.
I met George in Aleppo on my way to Beirut several years ago. There was a European Baptist meeting in Lebanon and the cheapest way to get there was to travel via Aleppo. I flew from Tbilisi to Yerevan on a very small plane. The flight took only 29 minutes! Then I secured a Syrian visa in Yerevan and flew from there to Aleppo. From Aleppo I took a coach to Beirut, which cost me 5 US dollars, the cheapest international journey I have ever taken. My Lebanese Baptist colleagues had closely monitored my journey. They were a little bit nervous about my visit because of my appearance: a long-bearded, frocked, Georgian Baptist clergyman. They thought it would be a recipe for being identified with religious extremists of whom the Syrian and Lebanese authorities seemed to be very suspicious. I received a call from Beirut from my counterpart while I was still in Yerevan. He gave me very thoughtful instructions as to how to get to Beirut safely.
“Please do not wear clerical robes, do not bring religious literature with you…’ said my colleague; and then, after a short pause added ‘Can you shave off your beard, please?! This will make your life and our life much easier.”
I thanked him for his advice and assured him that I would be sensible about coming to Beirut safely. Of course I did not shave off the beard. I did not follow his counsel either. In fact I did everything the other way round. It was the evening when my plane landed in the historic city of Aleppo. A severe-looking border control officer first looked at my passport and then asked with a beaming smile on his face:
“Baba?” (Father in Arabic).
“Yes, I am,” I answered.
“Patricha?” (Patriarch) he asked again.
“Yes, you can call me Patriarch.” I smiled back at him.
“Welcome to Syria,” the officer said proudly, and handed the passport back to me.
Since that time George and I have kept in touch with each other. Recent developments in Syria have brought the two of us even closer. It is beyond our imagination to understand what is going on in Syria. It is like some form of endless suffering, and an unsolvable puzzle. What a relief to see his e-mail in my mailbox!!! The letter was to cast some light on my friend’s situation.
“Dear Malkhaz,” my friend wrote, “We really need people praying for us at this time. We are happy to be together as a family. This is a precious gift from God. A couple of months back I and a colleague were kidnapped and held for two weeks. God set us free and it was wonderful to hear how family, colleagues and friends were all united in their efforts to set us free. This is something that I will never forget.”
Now I realized why he did not answer my letters. Apparently he had been through the most serious trial of his life. But he was alive and this is what mattered. In ‘the dark night of the continu(ing) war’ George saw some promising beacons of light. He continues his ministry to the people of Syria in the midst of ‘the dark night.’
Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it has been inhabited since perhaps as early as the 6th millennium BC. Such a long history is probably due to it being a strategic trading-point midway between the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia. The city’s significance in history has been its location at the end of the Silk Road, which passed through central Asia and Mesopotamia. In the course of its rich history the city was attacked and captured by enemies at numerous times. When I saw my friends several years ago they could not possibly imagine that they would experience yet another siege in their lifetime.
Life in Aleppo continues. Life there is far from being normal, yet the people of Aleppo do not give up. My friend proudly tells me that his ten year-old son finished this term at school ‘with excellent results while Aleppo is under siege.’
In the evening I resumed my work on a new translation of the Bible in Contemporary Georgian. The translation is going to be a meaning-based version of the Bible for Georgian youth. I have spent quite a bit of my life on Bible translations. First I worked as a bible translator for the Georgian Orthodox Church, along with the best Georgian scholars and translators, like Prof. Zurab Kiknadze and Bachana Bregvadze. I was only 23 years old then. The translation was published in 1989. Than I worked as a Bible translator for the United Bible Societies. The translation came out in 2001. Both translations are literary translations of the Bible, in the tradition of Georgian translation. What I am doing now is an entirely new translation with a special emphasis on the meaning and understandability of the text. I have already translated some books of the Bible and I hope when I am back in Georgia that I will be able to continue my work on this translation. The director of the Georgian Bible Society expects me to finish the translation as soon as possible.
I spent the entire evening working on the first chapter of the Letter of St. James. James suggests that the faithful should ‘have faith and not doubt.’ I have already come across the issue of translating “doubt” in previous translations (1989, 2001). In Georgian we have various words expressing doubt but there is no generic word ‘doubt’ that would be applicable to any situations where there is talk of doubt. Even the English word ‘doubt’ does not clearly represent what James wanted to say. He wanted the faithful not ‘to waver between two alternatives.’ ‘Doubt’ is too valuable a concept to be compromised. Without doubt there is no sound faith. After a long struggle and after having tried a lot of options on Kyrion (he is a good Georgian speaker), after midnight I found a word ‘urq’eoba’ (Georgian for ‘unwavering’) that would express what James wanted to say without compromising the word ‘doubt.’