Our Lady of Soufanieh - Modeling Sainthood in Contemporary Damascus – University of Copenhagen

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Our Lady of Soufanieh - Modeling Sainthood in Contemporary Damascus

PhD Thesis by Andreas Bandak, 2012

Main supervisor: Professor dr.phil. Esther Fihl, Centre for Comparative Cultural Studies, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

Co-supervisor: Professor Jørgen Bæk Simonsen, The Carsten Niebuhr Section, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

The project was financed by FKK, the Danish Research Agency. Andreas Bandak has also obtained an Elite Research Travel Stipend from the Danish Minister for Research.

English Abstract

Danish Resumé 

 

Assessment Committee:

  • Professor Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Chair (University of Copenhagen)
  • Professor Willy Jansen (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen)
  • Professor Simon Coleman (University of Toronto)

 

English Abstract

This thesis probes the role of exemplarity in the life of the followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh, Damascus, Syria. Since late 1982, a local woman, Myrna Akhras, has received apparitions of and messages from the Virgin Mary and been the source of miracles. Based on twenty months of fieldwork between 2004 and 2010, this thesis explores the phenomenon of Our Lady of Soufanieh in followers’ daily practices and in their attempts to corroborate the message of the Virgin Mary at this particular spot. The devout followers aim to model the sainthood of Myrna and, by extension, themselves. The phenomenon is understood in relation to the Christian minority’s precarious situation in the region, one in which the message of Our Lady of Soufanieh, the message of faith, love and unity, talks to broader concerns.

The central argument in the thesis is that the modeling of sainthood attempted by the followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh is situated in relation to a structure of exemplarity. Myrna is singled out by her followers as a noteworthy example, herself chosen by Mary, and they attend to her words and deeds, and themselves aim to model sainthood in their own lives. The status of the example is never settled once and for all, however, as many Christians in Damascus take no notice of it or even reject it. In this way, more than stabilizing a particular way of seeing things, the example sets a local world in motion. It is this very movement that this thesis traces in focusing on prayers and icons, sermons, life stories, questions of evidence and signs, pilgrimage and recent film productions which, in different ways, open up the possibility of reflecting on both how a local world produces structures of exemplarity but also how an anthropologist uses examples and exemplars in the crafting of analysis.

The thesis, in this sense, takes on a broader examination of what it is that examples can do. How are examples used to corroborate more general claims? What does it mean to follow an example? What is a good example? Or for that matter what is a bad one? These questions are all highly pertinent for the followers of Our Lady of Soufanieh. These questions, however, have hitherto eluded much specific anthropological attention. In exploring the role of exemplarity and the modeling of sainthood, the thesis contributes to the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of the Middle East by focusing on the role and life of Christians in the region and the diverse ways of striving for unity in a plural setting.

 

Dansk resumé

Denne afhandling undersøger det eksemplariskes rolle i livet for tilhængerne af Vor Frue af Soufanieh i Damaskus, Syrien. Siden november 1982 har den lokale kvinde Myrna Akhras modtaget visioner og budskaber fra Jomfru Maria, lige såvel som hun er anset for at være kilde til mirakler. Baseret på tyve måneders feltarbejde mellem 2004 og 2010 undersøger afhandlingen fænomenet Vor Frue af Soufanieh i tilhængernes daglige praksis og i deres forsøg på at underbygge Jomfru Marias budskab på dette partikulære sted. De dedikerede tilhængere sigter på at modellere Myrnas helgenskab og i forlængelse heraf deres eget. Fænomenet forstås i relation til den kristne minoritets usikre situation i regionen, en situation, hvor Vor Frue af Soufaniehs budskab om tro, kærlighed og enhed taler til bredere anliggender.

Afhandlingens centrale argument er, at den modellering af helgenskab, som tilhængerne af Vor Frue af Soufanieh sigter mod, må situeres i relation til eksemplaritet. Myrna bliver udskilt af hendes tilhængere som et bemærkelsesværdigt eksempel, valgt af Maria, og de lægger mærke til hendes ord og handlinger, ligesom de forsøger at modellere helgenskab i deres egne liv. Eksemplets status er dog aldrig afgjort engang for alle, da mange kristne i Damaskus ikke lægger mærke til det eller sågar afviser det. Mere end at stabilisere en særlig måde at se ting på, sætter eksemplet på denne måde en verden i bevægelse. Det er denne bevægelse, som afhandlingen sporer ved at fokusere på bønner og ikoner, prædikener, livshistorier, spørgsmål om bevis og tegn, pilgrimsfærd og nye filmproduktioner, der på forskellig vis åbner muligheden for at reflektere over, hvordan en lokal verden skaber strukturer for det eksemplariske, men også hvordan en antropolog bruger eksempler og modeller i skabelsen af en analyse.

På denne måde tager afhandlingen en bredere undersøgelse op i forhold til, hvad eksempler kan. Hvordan bruges eksempler til at understøtte bredere påstande? Hvad vil det sige at følge et eksempel? Hvad er et godt eksempel? Eller for den sags skyld, hvad er et dårligt? Disse spørgsmål er alle store anliggender for Vor Frue af Soufaniehs tilhængere. Hidtil har de samme spørgsmål forbigået en særskilt antropologisk opmærksomhed. I undersøgelsen af det eksemplariskes rolle og modelleringen af helgenskab bidrager denne afhandling såvel til kristendommens antropologi som Mellemøstens antropologi ved at fokusere på de kristnes rolle og liv i regionen og de forskellige måder, der arbejdes i retning af enhed i en plural sammenhæng.