Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Portrait #42: Priest

Today we went to visit a village with a large new private university and a church that has an impressive collection of antiquities. The priest of the church was our host for the day, and he took his job very seriously. Actually, I think he took pretty much everything seriously.

His original plan was to take us to see the antiquities at the church and to see the university before treating us to lunch, but when we arrived late, he quickly amended his plan to cater to our growling stomaches. We followed him, him in his car and us in our bus, to a very nice restaurant on the edge of the university campus. When we got out of the bus, he came up to greet us. Even dressed in traditional priest's garb, a black robe over black trousers, black socks and black shoes, with a black button-down collarless shirt pulled over it all, I know this priest could have been a bouncer in another life. In his super-thick yet fashionable eyeglasses and cropped black hair and thick beard, he towered over us all and smiled shyly. He wore a wedding ring but gave us his undivided attention all afternoon - I don't think he spoke on a mobile phone the entire time we were there!

He quickly said hello to us all in broken English and led us into the restaurant, where he'd reserved a very nice table. He asked how many of us wanted soup and we all eagerly raised our hands - we haven't had soup all summer! So he and the restaurant manager had a bit of a chat in which he proceeded to order enough appetizers to feed five times our group - plus onion soup. Then he pulled out a notebook and a pen and handed it to the person closest to him, asking her to write her name, hometown and email address down for him so that he could keep in touch. This got passed around the table and when we finished, he read our names out loud to make sure he now knew us.

I learned an interesting lesson this afternoon. It is dangerous to order food for other people when one is fasting. See, the priest was fasting today, and I'm sure treating us to our best lunch all summer was a labour of love for him. But he ordered much, much more food than we could ever eat. By the time the main dish came, many of us barely ate more than a bite, and we felt bad for wasting it. When we commented, half-jokingly and half-seriously, about the inordinate amount of food he'd ordered, he smiled and said, "Mit Ahlan wa Sahlan." One hundred welcomes. When we mentioned how good it was and how amazingly full we were, he smiled and said we were very welcome. I don't think he quite grasped the fact that we actually were stuffed to the brim. So in general, I'd recommend that you not order food for others when you yourself are fasting. In this case, I just hope someone got to eat all the leftovers.

After lunch, the priest took us to his church and showed us the ancient stone carvings behind the altar. The Orthodox girls in our group were shocked that he took us behind the altar at all. But he insisted that we must see it - and proceeded to guide us carefully around the altar, not in front of it. Then he led us to the room that held ancient icons and books, and described each one to us in detail.

His English was good but his vocabulary was very weak. Whenever he got to a word he didn't know in English, he'd stop what he was saying and stare at us blankly. Then he'd say the word in Arabic, hoping one of us bilingual people would translate it for us.

When telling us the names of places and people, he'd repeat each name very very clearly for us, then repeat it again, in a tone that suggested he expected us to be taking notes.

Finally, he took us to the university. We were running quite late for our next appointment, so he had us walk quickly, but he still found a young man who works at the university to give us a full tour and took us up to meet the VP of the board of trustees. He took his job as host very seriously and apologised for not showing us the entire village, even though in Arabic I heard him register some surprise that we wanted to see such a minor village in the first place.

Then he followed us all back to the bus and bid his farewells in a sad tone that suggested he was disappointed he could not spend more time with us. He said he hoped we had had a good afternoon and hoped that our next rendezvous went well. We applauded our priest, by far the most devoted tour guide we've had all summer. Then he bid a very warm farewell to our bus driver and went on his way.

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