Mar. 18, 2008

The Hash

This past weekend I became a hasher. No, this is not some bizarre, drug-induced psychedelic experience but rather a run through the ruggedly beautiful Syrian countryside. Of course, it should be noted that hashers are always proud to say that they are a drinking club with a running problem!

(Baptized a hasher)

I will leave Wikipedia to describe the history and essentials of hashing, and simply begin by saying that our course started about a half-hour’s drive out of Aleppo. The course was marked with blue chalk powder that took us over five kilometers of stony hills, through abandoned towns, under the shade of well-tended olive trees, and up to the walls of a pilgrimage point dedicated to St. Simeon. It was an absolutely beautiful day – the mountains of southeastern Turkey were visible in the distance - and a wonderful way to escape the noise and smog of the city. Throughout the day, I got a good sense of how life worked in the villages of Syria: I maneuvered in between grazing cattle, saw families out for picnics, and saw the challenging farming conditions from which many Syrians must make their living. Contemporary Syrians can in no way be blamed for the erosion of topsoil due to thousands of years of agricultural mismanagement. Cattle and sheep can graze among the rocks, but a Herculean effort would be required to remove all the rocks that have been laid bare by over-farming!

I could not help but feel that I was both an observer and participant of history. When visiting the former home of St. Simeon, a hermit who dispensed advice from atop the high post that he chained himself for over thirty years, it was amazing to imagine how the hilltop must have been transformed over the years from an isolated dwelling to a popular pilgrimage point to a large chapel and later to a ruin of that chapel. I have a lot to look forward to when I visit the castles in two weeks! Soon after making my way past the ruins of St. Simeon, I was initiated into the worldwide community of hashers. After wandering over hills under the bright midday sun, I was baptized with blue chalk and beer alongside other hash initiates and then downed a Heineken while veteran hashers cheered us to drink it or pour it on our head. (Fear not friends – the cool and refreshing beverage was in no way wasted on the colourful crown of my head!) It was a bit of a cultish experience, but it is funny to think that this tradition was started by a bunch of British diplomats living in Malaysia in the 1930s!

With tongue slightly in cheek, I cannot help but wonder whether this is what Public History ought to resemble: experiencing the modern and ancient history of a country by spending the day outside, exploring farmland and historical ruins, and winding down with a some laughs and a few drinks. (My professors: “Great Jeremy – bribe them into enjoying history with beer.”) Well, all I can say is we would certainly be making steps towards appealing to and engaging a new and broad audience!

(In the midst of the ruins at St. Simeon)