A Journey to the Source

Dariusz Rosiak, Ziarno i krew. Podróż śladami bliskowschodnich chrześcijan [Grain and blood. A journey in the footsteps of Middle East Christians], Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2015, p. 416.

Armenians, Assyrians, Copts—the first converts, almost eyewitnesses of the work of Jesus and the Apostles—have aroused our fascination for centuries, while at the same time nagging the Western conscience. Dariusz Rosiak, author of reportages (Żar [Heat]) and insightful biographies (Człowiek o twardym karku [A hardy man], Wielka odmowa [The great refusal]) seems to be a writer particularly predestined to show the drama of Middle Eastern Christians without confessional bias. There is no coincidence in the fact that his journey to the East starts in… Sweden, one of the few remaining countries which still provide hospitality and refuge to thousands of persecuted people, without sifting through them like rotten apples. The Swedish willingness to help is not conditioned by origin, religion, or nationality of those in need. It is ironic that a country which had been one of the last to be Christianized, and now belongs to the most secularized ones, has become a refuge for the descendants of the first Christians. This begs the question if there might be a cause and effect relationship here.

Rosiak’s story begins at the former Roman- Persian border, in today’s eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, in other words – in Kurdistan. The author follows in the footsteps of Christian refugees, Armenians and Assyrians, to Istanbul, the former Constantinople, and thence to Lebanon, the bastion of Christian Maronites, who contrary to conventional wisdom have more often been the persecutors rather than the persecuted, and finally to Egypt, the homeland of the Coptic Church.

One point is missing on this map – Syria. It is the stage of the greatest contemporary drama, its victims being Middle Easterners regardless of their religion. The omission of Syria, although understandable in the light of the ongoing war, may seem a mistake, yet it is logical – if Rosiak went to Aleppo, he could not stop at the description of the fate of Christians. In other words, he would have to write a different book. And perhaps someday he will.

In Jesus’s time in the area, including Syria and Palestine, the Aramaic language was the contemporary lingua franca. Jesus probably taught in this tongue, related to Hebrew; the first recorded fragments of the Gospel are in Aramaic. The reporter from Poland reaches its contemporary users, persecuted and expelled by Islamic fundamentalists, internally divided and unsure of their own identity, still arguing whether there are Aramaeans, Assyrians, Syrians or even someone else, whether they are a nation at all or rather a church or a religious group. The author quotes all these disputes almost at full length – for Rosiak is above all a reporter: he documents things and puts them down, he records conversations, dialogues and monologues. In short, he gives the floor to his protagonists, and they are a legion: refugees and job migrants, vendors and politicians, social activists, priests and bishops – anyone who has anything to say, while Rosiak arranges this cacophony into a 400-pages-long polyphonic epic poem.

Under his pen the fate of Aramaeans becomes an allegory of the fate of Middle Eastern Christians in general. Their ancient capitals were the first centers of the new faith; it is from there that Christianity started its triumphal march to the west (and north), to shape the face of Europe (and Russia), and in modern times also of a major part of the world. “Christianity has its origins in the East. It all began in Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople. Rome was far away. Italia was conquered by Visigoths and Huns, British Isles were terrorized by the Picts, Scots, and Saxons, the area which is now Poland was a wilderness where people competed for land with bison and wolves,” writes the author with gusto. “Meanwhile, the Christian theology then forged in the East was to change the world.”

Middle Eastern Christians still recall the former glory, which passed with the rise of a new power – Islam. However–and this is another irony–Eastern Christianity survived in this area thanks to Islamic hegemony. The patriarchs of Constantinople knew that under the Ottoman rule the Orthodox would be an oppressed minority, but under the “Franks” (as they called Roman Catholics) they would simply cease to exist, sharing the fate of heretics. Having to choose between papists and Muslims, between conversion and submission, they chose the latter. In fact, they had no choice at all. “The West” was not able to help them – not then nor later.

When in the early 20th century Turkish nationalists turned the Ottoman Empire into a republic, following the model of Western European nation-states, Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians fell victim to genocidal pogroms. Today, the memory of the Great Catastrophe (Armenian Medz Yeghern) is the foundation of their collective identity, perhaps even more important than religion. The people interviewed by Rosiak dwell endlessly on past wrongs and believe that they were again left alone, just like a century ago. “On the face of it we know that it was so. We also know that thousands of Eastern Christians are now killed by Muslim fanatics, hundreds of thousands are fleeing from places inhabited by their ancestors for centuries,” writes the author. “They are intimidated, evicted from their homelands, and we are idly looking on as the source from which our culture once erupted dries up. We watch the crimes of the Islamic State on TV or on YouTube and at most organize fundraisers – as we always do when we want to assuage our conscience. I did not want to throw in a coin to this collecting can or to practice armchair moralism,” confesses Rosiak. “I preferred to embark on a journey, try to describe this world which is perhaps coming to an end, pay tribute to its inhabitants. For what is a genuine journey if not an expression of respect for the people and the history, and adoration of places and things?”

But the journalistic voyage of the author of Grain and Blood is something more than an adoration; it is a profound analysis of the contemporary drama of proxy wars, the refugee problem, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, and hypocrisy of Europe. We all have sprouted from this grain. We all have blood on our hands.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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