It’s not often that I get the pleasure of reading books aloud to little ones. The local nephews are either way too big (18 years old!) or way too little (7 months old). There are no local nieces. But, I am an occasional babysitter for two delightful little girls in the neighborhood that love to read. We have continued to work our way through the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, and we just wrapped up Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill. They totally understood Julia and Katie’s big fight and felt like finding out who would be Queen of Summer was quite the agonizing cliff-hanger. They were fascinated by Little Syria–the food, the language, the clothes. But as I read, I kept thinking about the current war in Syria. I was almost afraid that the dark headlines and stories of recent weeks had somehow fluttered downward into their heads and they would put two and two together. Even though they’re young, they’re smart girls. It was in the realm of possibility. If they asked about how Little Syria of 1900 Deep Valley was connected to Syria today, what would I say?
For those that haven’t read BTGOBH, Little Syria is a part of Deep Valley that is just a little bit separate from the rest of the community. The girls first meet Naifi, an immigrant about their age, during one of their famous picnics on the Big Hill. They don’t share a language, but they do end up sharing laughter and snacks. Later, Naifi is teased by some boys, and they rush to her defense. And then they visit Little Syria. Because of the way they had helped Naifi, they instantly make friends. Naifi’s father invites the girls to their home.
They are fascinated by this different way of living. A hubble-bubble pipe, a muinjaira, a different language, kibbee, raisins, and figs. (food is always important in the Betsy-Tacy books). Naifi’s father hesitates about their desire to be queens, saying “I do not think that queens are good to have.”
When the truth comes out about their trip to Little Syria, the fight deepens. The girls are in trouble–not because they went to Little Syria, but because they didn’t have permission. Mr. Ray, the ever-wise and patient father, shares with his girls a bit about the history of Syria:
Mr. Meecham and I started to talk about his neighbors. He’s interested in them, and no wonder. They come from a very interesting country. You can read about their county in the Bible. The Deep Valley Syrians are Christians, but most Syrians are Mohammedans. Syria is under the control of the Turks, and the Turks are Mohammedans too. A good many of the Christian Syrians are coming to America these days. And they come for much of the same reason that our Pilgrim fathers came. They want to be free from oppression and religious persecution. We ought to honor them for it.
In some ways, not much has changed. Though now it is two Muslim factions fighting, it is still a war about religion. Syrians are again fleeing their country. I often get tired of that over-used saying about how we must learn history or we are doomed to repeat it. We repeat past mistakes all the darn time, and we never learn. If anything, history gives a greater depth to the present. Reading this passage made my heart ache for this ancient country.
Though I try to follow world news, I am certainly no expert on the ins and outs of the civil war in Syria. And I’ll admit that I had kinda ignored the Syrian crisis. But after re-reading BTGOBH again, I started paying more attention. Thinking of Naifi and her family gave a face to the thousands that are fighting to survive right now. This week, as I listened to stories on NPR about the recent declaration that this is, in fact, a civil war, I kept thinking about the immigrants of 100 years ago and the conflicts that brought them here. Where might a Little Syria pop up today? And would their neighbors be as excited and welcoming as Betsy, Tacy and Tib?
My girls didn’t make the connection between the headlines and their bedtime story. And I’m still not exactly sure what I would have said if they asked. Because I certainly don’t understand.