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bel. You live among treasures whose value no one knows but their readers.”

“Those who do not know the value of books know nothing of the value of life.

And just like that, Father Charbel took himself off amongst his books, scratching away in his large-leafed register with the Parker fountain pen that he’d kept in his pocket since his Mosul days.

“Father Ishaq,” he said: “We don’t know what would become of the monastery if Father Joseph left us. We’ve no idea where the wind would take us. A ship sinks without a captain, wouldn’t you say? Why do the monks and nuns avoid reading?”

Like the other Assyrian fathers, Father Charbel knew nothing of life outside the monastery. His father had died when he was fifteen, and his mother widowed. Her new husband had refused to take him on, sending him to the monastery against the wishes of both himself and his mother, who wept for him without pause, day and night, and would travel more than two hundred kilometres to visit him and bring him food and fruit. Because of this, he had never sat at a school desk: everything he learnt, he learnt in the monastery and he held to his vows with utter devotion.

“Did you know, Father Ishaq, that ‘there’s a magic in books, as there is in water’? I often dream of the letters, rising and falling on a blue ocean. I read the books from the ocean’s surface.”

“Lovely, Father Charbel: you have a lovely imagination.” “And you are more lovely still, Father Ishaq.” He was briefly silent, staring into space as though reading letters that had been lost there. He sighed. “Did you know that following the American invasion of our country, the church there has splintered into twelve branches? Baptist, Protestant, Lutheran, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . Even the priests have changed. Now they’re only interested in wealth and position. What’s the point of the Christianity we build our hopes on here, in the Monastery of the Icons? We’re just a bunch of crazy Assyrian fathers exiled from Iraq.”

“What can we do, Father Charbel?” “The answer is that Assyrians must not emigrate from Iraq and abandon it to the extremists.”

“Haven’t you seen yourself how they murder the scientists, doctors and academics, burn the libraries, abduct the monks, and demolish the churches?”

BANIPAL 53 – SUMMER 2015 35

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