Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Ussama Ajaj Al Mohtar

The Syrian Christ (Book Review, March 12, 2009)

In 1916, Abraham Mertie Rihbany published “The Syrian Christ”; eleven editions have so far been printed.  This manuscript was a compendium of articles submitted to the Atlantic Monthly from 1914 to 1916.  Rihbany wrote: “When I read the Bible, I have the distinct impression that I am reading a fresh letter arriving from my parents and relatives in Lebanon”.

Abraham Rihbany undertook to explain to the western Christians the customs and traditions of the civilization in the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) that are almost unchanged since Christ and an exhaustive explanation of the written and verbal style of the Bible.

The target audience is the American Christian (mostly among the Protestant sects) who tends to accept every word in the Bible integrally without much openness, analysis, or comprehension of the customs and traditions of the Levant that are described in the Bible. The purpose is to describe the environment and daily life in which Jesus lived, grew up, roamed, was nurtured, and the language (Aramaic), the maxims, the aphorisms of “The Sacred Land” that Jesus spoke.

It was the author’s premise that assimilating the Syrian customs and traditions allows the western Christians to comprehend the verbal imageries of the Bible and appreciate their real values and how the multitudes of stories start to make sense.

The verbal and written style in the Levant is characterized by direct pronouncements expressing feeling and describing what is seen and heard.  The sentences are not encumbered by prefixes such as “I think”, “I believe”, “I am not sure”, “It is possible”, “There might be other versions”, “I might be wrong”, “It is my opinion”, or what the western writers have adopted from the Greek rational style.

The written style in the Levant sounds of utter confidence, categorical, and conveying the total truth, though it does not mean that the people cannot discriminate or feel the variations and uncertainties.  The writers in the Levant simply feel that all these attachments are redundant since it is a fact of life that nothing is categorical or certain.  Thus, superfluous additions disturb the flow of thoughts and the ideas that need to be conveyed.  Rihbany feels that the western readers of the Bible should tone down their uneasiness with “outrageous” direct pronouncements and sentences in the Bible.

The manuscript is of six chapters in 187 pages.  The first chapter is about Jesus the Syrian man, his birth, the star, obedience to parents, holyday and Eucharist.  The second chapter is on the Levant verbal style, the daily parlance, the curses, love of the enemy, “the untruthful eastern person”, impression when challenged by professionalism, speaking in maxim and aphorism, and swearing. Chapter three is on bread and salt, the sacred food, “our daily bread”, “forcing invitation to eat”, “retarding a leaving guest”, and family reunions.  Chapter four is on boarding and sleeping overnight, the “souk”, the rooftop of the house, the grapevine and garden, and the shepherd.  Chapter five is on the sisters of Marie and Martha, women in the Levant, Saint Paul and women, Jesus and his mother, and “a gentle woman”.  Chapter six is called “here and there” in the Bible.

You will realize that the custom was, especially for widows, to be persistent in their demands, sit by the judge feet and keep urging him until the judge relents and gives in.  The custom was for a traveler to stop at the main Carrefour of a town and wait for the first passerby to invite him to stay the night and be fed; if the wait was prolonged then the town would be blemished of infamy for centuries. The custom was to refrain from sharing “bread and salt” until the conversation settle all the differences and the parties are satisfied that they are friends and loyal.

You will learn that visiting a shrine of a Saint was targeting a specific demand; the mother or the family would sleep overnight and sometimes for many days until the Saint or his “ghost” shows up to deliver the good message. The author explains the external form of patriarchal attitude and the internal customs within a family; the custom of keeping doors open until the time to go to bed.

People in the Levant know the cause and effects of phenomenon but they also believe that if God wishes then the effects will not take place no matter what. This is a far cry of the western mind that insists that God has nothing to do with errors or failures and some other supplementary causes have to be investigated when the appropriate effects do not materialize.

(All these customs and traditions of the Land in the Levant were practiced thousands of years before Judaism came to be.  The Jewish religion adopted the customs of the land and wrote in the same style of imagery, maxims, and aphorism. The original manuscripts describe accurately the culture of the land and in the same style even though a few wrote4 in Greek, the language of the highly literate of the period. The writers of the Bible and the New Testaments were people of the land and spoke in the language of the land. Thus, it would be beneficial to be cognizant of the culture and civilization of the land in order to fully appreciate Christianism and the teaching of Jesus. The Bible is a wonderful source for learning the customs of the Land if read to that purpose)

Note 1: I read the Arabic translation by Ussama Ajaj Al Mohtar ISBN: 9953-417-05-9. When I get hold of the original English version then I might have another go for a thorough detailed review.

Note 2: The author Abraham Metrie Rihbany was born in 1869 in the village of Chouwir in Lebanon, one of 11 kids. He integrated a Protestant school in Souk al Gharb in 1886 and was appointed to teach the elementary classes for 3 years in order to cover the expenses. He immigrated to the USA in 1891 and contributed in editing the first Arab daily in the USA “Kawkab al Shark” (The Eastern Planet). Rihbany ventured into a new job of talking in churches in the evening about the “Sacred Land” for contributions. He was selected to represent the Syrian associations in the USA to the Peace Conference held in Paris in 1919. Abraham Rihbany met with the delegates and King Fayssal for 4 months and published a book on that event “Wise Men from the East and from the West” in 1922.

In 1918, Rihbany published “America Save the Near East” urging the USA to deny France and Britain any mandate status over the States in the Levant and warned on the organized Zionist movement to settling in Palestine.  Rihbany published eight books in total among them “Militant America and Jesus Christ” in 1917 and an autobiography “A Far Journey” in 1913 after he visited Lebanon with his wife in 1898.  Rihbany died in 1944; he was 75 of age.

Note 3:  Tourists to the Levant, visiting the urban centers, might not recognize the basic characteristics shared by the population.  Whatever differences seen by tourists are at best skin deep.  The behaviors of the urban citizens are basically the same as in the villages regardless of the verbal proclamations and intentions expressed to the contrary. , March 12, 2009)






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