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Why I Cannot Forget the Middle East

April 18, 2018 by

It is now seven months since my wife, Tessy, and I left the Middle East and I have spent these months living mostly in two worlds. Tessy seems to have adjusted more easily but I’m having difficulty processing our experiences. I keep thinking about the children we met who have had to grow up too fast, who have witnessed things I don’t want to imagine. And the men and women we met who have suffered so much, and yet welcomed us with all the hospitality they could muster.

Today I saw the dust from a dove’s feathers impressed into a window pane. When the sun shone on this two-dimensional image of a dove in flight I thought, “That is pure art – pure as in transparent.” That dove’s imprint suddenly became a metaphor for my experiences in the Middle East.

Let me explain.

I was given a dish-dash by a Syrian refugee on the last day of our nineteen-month stay in the Middle East. I didn’t think Muslim jihadist when I saw the tunic – it was this homeless man’s last reminder of his beloved Syrian heritage. And he gave it to me with such warmth, with tears in his eyes.

To me, this white robe – of a very fine cloth weave – is like the white feathers of a dove when I place it over my head. You see, I watched many Bedouin shepherds herding their sheep. They wore these tunics, dressed as I always imagined those shepherds “abiding in their fields by night.” If a host of heavenly angels could announce news of great joy to men dressed in shepherds’ robes, then I wanted to have one like them.

When I look at the dish-dash now I don’t see a white tunic; I see my friend who has witnessed bombings, murders, and grotesque tortures beyond my darkest nightmares. And I also see angel wings. I see the flight of doves circling over the refugee camps. I see shepherds on the margins of society being led to the birthplace of Jesus.

Image of a feather

The photos I took of the dove’s print on glass are essential to understanding my thoughts. For me, these images are a lens through which I can reflect on and process my experiences in the Middle East. Please take a moment to study the first photo: it’s the feather and dust pattern left by the dove that flew into the window (a month or so ago).

The wind blows the feather back and forth but it remains attached to the smooth surface of the glass. In the split second that the camera recorded the variations of light on the digital sensor, the feather formed the shape of a flying dove.

Then, for the second photo, I moved back far enough to capture the entire shape of the bird with its wings’ graceful curves:

Image of a dove

The third photo was only possible by standing very far from the window and using the zoom lens to record the details of light on the dust. All my attempts to capture the details up close failed to show more than a blurry smudge.

Image of a dove through a window

For me to process what those nineteen months taught us, I must step back. For me to pray for the Syrian refugee families at the Jordanian border, I must step back. I have to accept that I am not actively involved in their lives right now. At the same time, I must keep asking those difficult questions, because I cannot – and must not – forget the people I came to know and love in the Middle East.

Often I feel very alone.

Fortunately, I have my life’s companion at my side to help me internalize the suffering of those in the Middle East, especially the children who were born into a world filled with hellish torment.

It drives us to our knees in prayer. We are rediscovering the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. And the meaning of compassion.

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About the author

John Henry Menz

John Henry Menz

John is an amateur astronomer, photographer, and gardener who is currently living in Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in England...

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  • Cynthia, your words are a great encouragement to me and Tessy. 50 years ago Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by the leaders of Western governments for condemning the War in Vietnam. Unknowns, like us, who condemn the War in the Middle East today, will be silenced as well. Nevertheless, His Peace goes way beyond our human understanding. We stand together in our longing for Peace and Justice. John Henry Menz

    John Henry Menz
  • I wish more people who live in the western world were forced to witness what you and your wife did while in the Middle East. They might then put the necessary pressure on their governments to change their policies toward Syria and the other countries in the Middle East.

    Cynthia Conrad