In 2009, I visited my relatives in Syria for the last time before the war forced my family in America to avoid traveling there for nearly a decade. Before I returned as a 21-year-old last October, I spent the first few years of adulthood wracking my brain to retrieve what pre-war memories of the country still lingered from childhood. My mom, dad, brother, and I would visit almost every summer when I was a child. I remembered being eaten alive by mosquitos. I remembered my paternal grandparents’ house in a small, Christian village on the outskirts of Safita, nestled on a hill that sloped beside a dam rife with merciless bugs. I remembered the citrus and fig trees in my grandmother’s garden, which my father had tried unsuccessfully to replicate in the not-so-fertile Pittsburgh soil. My father’s side of the family lives close enough to Lebanon that I also remembered the sound of bombs being detonated on the other side of the mountains. My aunt, who was visiting at the time from America, would spare my younger cousins knowledge of the violence beyond the border by telling them the booms were fireworks.
My grandparents’ home is next to a Presbyterian church, and a brief walk away is the Orthodox church where I was baptized. I remember the village buzzing with talk about Eid al-Saydeh and festival planning. It was almost mid August, and we were returning to the States soon, but my aunts emphasized that it was important we attended the parties and parades for the holiday.
Eid al-Saydeh is the Arabic name for the Feast of the Assumption (or Dormition) of the Blessed Virgin, I would later come to learn. Western Christians don’t celebrate the holiday like they do Christmas or Easter, but in Levantine countries and among the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora in the West, the feast is a comparably elaborate and exciting occasion.
My father’s side of the family hasn’t felt the wrath of the war like my mother’s side, which is based in Homs, a city just now beginning to rebuild after nearly a decade of devastation. Due to the relative peace that his side of the family has experienced in their predominantly Alawite and Christian town, the war hasn’t changed Eid al-Saydeh for them. It has been celebrated there in much the same way as it always was: Festivals — called “mahrajan” in Arabic — are thrown, with drums loud enough to make your ears ring and desserts decadent enough to make you feel guilty for eating them even after hours of dabke, the traditional Levantine folk dance.
Elsewhere in Syria, Christian villages haven’t fared so well. Many have only just begun to celebrate Eid al-Saydeh after years of being unable to because of the war. In Wadi al-Nasara, which translates to “Valley of Christians,” a smaller village called Kafra has started to celebrate the Feast with parades through town for the first time in seven years. Other villages, such as Marmarita, prepare for their festival by chalking murals on the ground and assembling carnival rides outside churches.
Syrian and Lebanese Christians in America will also be celebrating the holiday, as they have for decades, with festivals, parties, and parades. In Wheeling, W.V., Our Lady of Lebanon Church will host its 85th Eid al-Saydeh mahrajan, welcoming thousands of visitors from across the country to dance and feast. All funds raised will go to the rebuilt church itself, which burned down in 1932, leaving only a single Marian icon intact. In Allentown, Pa., which has one of the largest populations of Syrian Americans in the country, other churches host similar festivals and parties.
As Syria slowly recuperates from years of strife, Holy Land Christians continue to fill Syrian church pews. I’ve seen images of weddings held in churches that were reduced to their cement bases but continue to function as they always did. On my visit last year, I returned to the church I was baptized in, and it was crowded with families despite the lack of air conditioning, which made the approximately 1,000-square-foot building feel like a Turkish bath.
Perhaps the story of Our Lady of Lebanon Church in West Virginia is a metaphor also applicable to the Christians in Syria, who witnessed much of their beautiful, ancient country reduced to rubble in the intense flame of war and somehow managed to emerge with their faith unsinged.