Among the things that a new resident of Edinburgh has to do to feel that they have truly arrived are: climb Arthur’s Seat (check); visit a Whisky Distillery (check); survive Hogmanay (check); celebrate Burn’s Night …
As a long-time lover of haggis, I had been looking forward to the mysteries of the Burns Supper – being piped in, addressing the haggis, the toasts – taking me into the poetic, dare I say, romanticised heart of ‘Scottish culture’. As it happened, my Burns celebration took me into a very different culture.
There were no pipes, no tartan, no (to a sassenach) fairly impenetrable poetry, not even a whiff of whisky, and the haggis itself was vegetarian. The bard would have turned in his grave! Or would he? For this was no ordinary Burns Night celebration. This was a coming together of Scots (well, Brits) and Syrians.
Despite the shameful record of the UK’s recent treatment of asylum seekers in general, the paltry response by the government to the Syrian crisis in particular, and the xenophobia stirred up by many newspapers and political groups, Syrians have been made welcome in this city. People of all faiths and philosophies have been falling over themselves to extend support and hospitality wherever they can.
This celebration was the first ‘Weekend Club’ set up by Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees and held in the hall at St Columba’s-by-the-castle. On one of the coldest and wettest nights of the winter, Kurdish and Arabic speaking Syrians came together for a ceilidh. What they made of vegetarian haggis, alongside a very decent curry, they tactfully kept to themselves. However, Syrians (I discover) love to dance and they threw themselves into the fray with verve – men, women and children, across the cultures, paired or lined up; and, before long, partners were being spun or promenaded, and the willow was being stripped. And then the roles were reversed and we were sharing in the long, sinuous dances of their homeland.
The tone was set throughout by the children, who were simply out to have a great time. Children can certainly have their childhood stolen from them but give them a chance and they will play – and play just like any other children from any other country – showing the truth of the saying that we have more things that unite us than divide us. We are, after all, simply human beings.
Perhaps it’s a shame that we didn’t have a bit of Burns (in Syrian translation), because those who have had to leave behind their homeland, in such awful circumstances, would surely have resonated with:
‘Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest! Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest! Thine be ilka joy and treasure, Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure! Ae fond kiss, and then we sever! Ae fareweel, alas, for ever! Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee!’
They would have understood that. Tragically, the ‘Great Chieftain’ seems not to. He is deaf to all the heart-wrung tears that unites us in compassion, as well as the joy and treasure that unites us in celebration, when we take down the walls, open the doors, and welcome our brothers and sisters.