Ivo Saglietti, Under the Tent of Abraham

Dear Ivo,

At long last, the book is a reality… thanks to you and thanks to Francesca and Mario Peliti!

There are three things that I want to speak to you about here.   The first will be a brief explanation about us:  who we are and who we would like to be, the Monastic Community of the Khalil (Abraham, the Friend of God), a community that came into being in the Syrian Antioch Monastery of Deir Mar Musa el-Habasci (St. Moses the Abyssinian.) The second will be to speak about you as person/photographer.  And the third will be to touch on the psychospiritual dilemma of the one who is being photographed.  

As for me, I was born in ’54, Roman, pupil of the Jesuits, scout, protester, dreamer, alpinist, novice in the Company of Jesus in ’75, and, since ’77, I have been in the Middle East, in service of the committment of the Church in the Moslem world.  In the summer of ’82, I arrived at the ruins of Deir Mar Musa for 10 days of spiritual retreat, and my ‘love affair’ with it began!   Here, I found the body of my dreams and desires, not only the mystic ones but also those about community, culture and politics:  body to body with the Other, Allah, the One of my passion, the Merciful, body of the Word, created eternal and creator, for an unspeakable embrace and a kiss that expresses everything and yet stays silent;  body that the breath of prophecy brings back to life, reanimates, resuscitates and makes apparent, evident!


SOTTO LA TENDA DI ABRAMO - Deir Mar Musa  el- Hadasci" fotografie di

IVO Saglietti, con una lettera di Padre Paolo Dall'Oglio.

Formato cm 24x28

Fotografie 46 in bianco e nero
Pagine 96

Testo in Arabo e in Italiano

Brossura con bandelle

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The priorities that emerge at the rose-hued surface of this desert of stone are also three:

        One:  the absolute nature of spiritual gratitude, choice and obedience, which are inseparable:  in  any other case, I want to die without paradise.

        Two:  manual work, work with the hands:  earth, rock, barley, olives, almonds, bees, goats, meat and cheese,  eggs and fresh produce, bureaucratic hassle, obstinate computers, kitchen, cess-pit and refuse....the love that does not incarnate does not make sense.

         Three: hospitality, which here in the semitic, Arab world with its nomadic origins, is the highest virtue that exists.  This is why the Patriarch Abraham is the greatest saint, as he welcomed in God, recognizing Him in the Guest.

Since ’91, we have been here ‘full time.’  A small community sprang up, dedicated to serious and  profound friendship with Moslems and with the Umma of Islam.  It is friendship that transforms you inside:  it re-shapes you in social, cultural and spiritual relationships.  To share the expression of Masignon, it is about immersing yourself in the line of destiny of the friend.

We are men and women of different churches and different countries.  We are experiencing and suffering the richness of diversity, the disciplined training of dialogue, the ecstasies of harmony. 

To be a monk is to be ‘one to one’ with God who asks and provokes an exclusive concentration, even of affection and eros, that projects the person, his world and his relationships beyond what is the natural normality, but with no sense of disrespect or superioity, towards the dimension at the very edge of the temporal bounds of history, in an existential condition that is consubstantial with faith. 

Celibacy, castrating when bereft of vision, we would see as a humble, courageous and faithful expression of a sublimation that is not naive, of a tenderness that goes beyond need, of a non-violent radicality in the experiencing and witnessing of the attitude of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus, the brothers and sisters are, first and foremost, monks and nuns.   We choose to be together in community because in the monastic life, which is also the evangelical life of the love of God and of one’s neighbour, both the primary and the final module is that sacred marriage:  the dialogue between the mystic masculine and the mystic feminine.  This entails the renunciation of life as part of a couple, but not of the profound nature of the interpersonal in which is mirrored the Divine Communion.



In the group photo, the first on the left is Jak, from Aleppo, companion from the very beginning, and now also parish priest at an oasis on the road to Palmyra.  Then there is Jens, from Zurich:  he was on his way to Samarkand, with his pack on his back, but here he met Jesus of Narereth, and they liked each other.  Third on the left is simple and very dear Butros, of Hasseke, dairyman.  On my left is Ramona, from Damascus.  Her family is originally from the Golan.   She was chief scout and first-class minister.   Next is Huda, agronomist, from Damascus but originally from the mountain area bordering with Lebanon.  She has been at Deir Mar Musa for ten years and she is ‘fundamental’ to the community.  In the foreground is Jihad, Maronite from the Syrian Mediterranean coast:  he became a friend of the Moslem sufis in old Damascus.   Since the photo was taken, two others have joined the community:   Frederic from Savoy, and Dima from Homs.

This Community of the Khalil belongs canonically and in a committed way to the Catholic Church;   at a practical level, it is part of the local Church, which is Syrian Antioch Catholic.  At present, an in-depth ecclesiastic assessment is underway of the direction of this new monastic foundation.

Since the time of Mohammad, the monastery in the desert has played an important socio-spiritual role, a role much appreciated and respected in the Moslem world.   Our greatest wish here has been to rediscover afresh that role of hospitality and take it forward in a more explicit and conscious way.   The tent of welcome and reception has become a symbolic meeting place with the people of the region:  they come here on Fridays wiht their families and they stay and eat their picnics at the entrance to the valley.  On occasions, we organize inter-religious meetings with the theme of seeking mutual comprehension and sharing the same desires for democracy and justice.   Together we experience the effectiveness of the spiritual dimension in shared moments of prayer.   This experience then leads us to return the visit, going to Islamic centres and mosques.  For all of us, it is essential to hear that we all slake our thirst at the same spiritual stream, even though each one offers with frankness the testimony of his own tradition.  All this then allows the creation of a circle of Islamic-Christian friendship, which fills us with hope for a future that is different from that of the television news.   One could do so much much more.....but the energy is what it is......neverthesless, one thing is certain:  the desire to meet together is strong and reciprocal.   It is also true that through the massmedia, this testimony can reach out to a large number of people and the symbolic range of the message of thereby multiplied.  


Here at Deir Mar Musa, we believe in the function of Islam in today’s world.  Furthermore we hold that no function, including that of politics, can be carried out to its full capacity without interaction, and hopefully communion, with other functions.   We claim to to have a role in this, inasmuchas we are Arab, or ‘Arabized’ disciples of Jesus.  The cycle then must turn, it seems to us, to carry out a function towards the Church and the ‘Christian world’, as much on the Middle Eastern level as on the Catholic.

Inside the world of the biblical/semitic cultural matrix, and in a way very analogous to the Judaic function but much vaster in scope, Islam also has the function , at least as far as I am to understand, of establishing itself ‘en masse’ in the rejection and restraint of the hegemonic ‘Christian’ claim in its various forms, including those ‘lay’ forms of secularized and globalizing modernity.

In addition, Islam helps to correct with rigour every attitude of incarnation and of immanence that finishes up with forgetting the relationship with the absolute and ineffable transcendence.

In short, Islam presents an indisputable testimony against every schizophrenia and every dualism that separates sacred and profane, religious and political, as it aspires towards the One with infinite and blessed nostalgia.  Following on from this is the enormous Islamic passion for justice in the sacred revendication of the right of the excluded.

Then let us not forget that Islam has offered, and continues to offer today, a picture of civilization and concrete spirituality to a large part of this planet’s population;  of course this can be criticized and improved, but this picture is nonetheless effectively dynamic.




We want to take up in radical solidarity the suffering and contradictions of day-to-day Islam, without trying to forget the part we in the Christian world played, a part in which the West is supreme.   We wish to take up in prayer and in an examination of conscience the tragic state of the present situation, of which Jerusalem is the most scandalous example.

But let’s come on, Ivo, to the second part:  the person of the photographer.  I like your photos, all of us here like them, we find them truthful;  indeed we re-discover ourselves through them.  Black-and-white is deadly in the way it goes beyond the illusion, strips off the veil of appearance:  it is both an abstractive process and a conceptualization.  But in particular, it is your great tenderness that we appreciate, a tenderness that has certainly suffered and united itself with the suffering and conflict that you have photographed all over the place for many years, not for voyeurism but for solidarity, exactly that, with conflict.

I would like to underline two aspects of your photos that are very dear to me.  In particular, the hands.   I do not know how you do it, but it is as if the hands come out to meet, welcoming, busy or simply at rest, but never obvious or ‘left hanging’.   The hands in your photos speak of your committment to the man in the story, at all costs.  Then the work and the workers.  I thank you for bringing us back the image of the decisive importance of being, monastics and collaborators, one single community of life.   You give me the opportunity of saying that Deir Mar Musa is not only a place of worship and work, but it is something more, a place where the working itself wants to give form and body to prayer and friendship, and where meditation surges forward to become a concrete reality.   In this way, our life together with Amin, Maruan, Marwn, Husayn, Ali, Majd....lay men and wonem, fathers and mothers, transcends and gives context to the monastic role.


I Your way of photographing is to ‘live with’, in the ordinary, everyday light, from morning to evening, in the candles of the night, without screens or reflectors or flash.  Your camera is discreet, its sound almost non-existent.  But this is not so as to steal your images but rather to receive them with courtesy and respect.  Your pictures are not those of a photographic reporter but those of a fellow-traveller who becomes a friend.  This is why this book is at one and the same time truly yours and truly ours.  I would have liked to have had inside also a good self-portrait, one of you to be with us.  I would like to be able to fix one image of our conversing together, as if to draw out the threads of an epoch.  But maybe the book itself deals with this very thing.

But how did it come about that Ivo got himself involved with a monastery in the desert? Of course, there was Mario Peliti who wanted to give a present to Francesca, for years one of the fans of Mar Musa, and also to me, his old camping companion  It was Mario who proposed the idea of you, because he had sniffed around and had heard that you would be the right person for the job!  You crept on tiptoe into our life, and now you are like one of the family.   Your photos show that you were never the aesthete nor the documentarist.   You asked yourself the very same questions we ask ourselves about the sense of daily gestures, those from believers as those from poor devils.  You know how to photograph our hope out there beyond the suffering.   Thank you!   You again posed with us the question of faith, of its legitimacy in relation to the perception of what is real, and thus of its existential and political scope.

Dear Ivo, your work is like a pledge between us.   I thank you especially because in photographing, you do not make a report of the objects, but you know how to foster the atmosphere that enables the subjects to emerge. In this sense, you have helped us to build up the monastic community also in relationship to a world which, through your lens, has asked us questions which are neither rhetoric nor instrumental.

Now we come to the third part.    It is rather in fashion to make a fuss about the invasion of photographers, hoping nevertheless that they do show up and in swarms!  Media interest is an effective and dangerous drug.  Is it normal for a monastic community, even an open and receptiove one, to put itself on show like this?   In fact, we actually set ourselves up as the actors of ourseves in a true film!

 MAR68 MAR70

When I was very young, I went to Lourdes and I dedicated myself to work in the swimming-pool for the seriously ill.   It was an experience of incredibly intense prayer.  Then, all of a sudden, there arrived, albeit with the permission of the rector of the sanctuary, a television crew who wanted to film everything.  I kicked up a terrible fuss, saying that this was the holy of holies of suffering and that curiosity should stay outside.   The TV crew dressed up as stretcher-bearers and one poor paralysed German took his cold bath again for the love of God and the hope that his mother would see him on television.  Today I think there was insufficient dialogue and that we felt ourselves violated in the most intimate and difficult emotions.  Nobody had bothered to explain that this was an opportunity for communication, to hold discourse with many people through these images.  Nor had anyone told us that we should not ignore the camera, but rather, through this means, including the microphone, we had the way of going into homes, to  invite people to come and help bear the weight of others.  To ignore the lens is artificial, to use it togther is honest, I now believe.

Giovanni Paolo II, when he was praying “live” never just pretended to pray, not did he pretend that the camera was not there.  I have seen him close up and how he did it.  He truly prayed on TV, and joined in communion all those watching him, even for a brief space of time amongst some fugitive zapping.

When a priest says Mass alone with the angels and the saints and the poor of the whole world, and when instead he raises the chalice in front of a telecamera for millions of viewers, nothing should be any different, except that in the black hole of the lens, he is now seeking to catch the glance of all those people, to exchange with them a word that, when all is said and done, is not actually his.

Since we were boys, a friend has accused me of exhibitionism, and I think he’s right!  Maybe he’ll see this book and say that I haven’t changed much, that I’ve founded an exhibitionst monastic community, and this without the saving grace of adolescent naivety!
On one hand, I think that exhibitionism is an expression of a great lack of faith in oneself, and of an enormous need for recognition.  When we “show off”,  we are really seeking confirmation of our self-worth in the world, and of our role in it.  I have the idea that, over the  years, my exhibitionism has changed just a little, inasmuch as the ego is less self-centred, because, through the effect of grace and penitence, it has becomed de-centred, looking to find its real Truth in the transcendent, interpersonal and cosmic relationship, taking part in the unique offering and singular sacrifice.  Thus, instead of selfish exhibitionism, it longs to show off this relationship in order that everyone can participate, marvel at it and rejoice in it: glory and not vainglory, shared pleasure and not self-complacency.   Our own glory is veiled and we still have so much to hide away....But the Lord is good and even through these images we have the chance to speak our love for Him.  In exhibiting, in showing off, in stripping ourselves and in staying there in front of the camera, in front of the photographer and all those who will see us, in a spiritual and psychological attitude of nakedness, there is the chance – not without its risk of even serious consequences – of recounting this great mutual love affair, of shouting it from the roof tops, of letting it be known in public places.  

We religious people put ourselves on show when it seems that there are no other ways of attracting vocations....Jesus of Nazareth however was put up on the cross “to draw all people to Him.”  I have the feeling that the world, yes, does need preaching but people are tired of words.  Soon they will also be tired of images.  The time will come round again to preach with word and with image, accompanied once again with salvatory gestures:  sacraments, miracles and evangelical life, humble, simple, welcoming.  The preaching itself judges above all the one who preaches:  and so your photos are for us a wake-up call, a warning, a programme and also an encouragement.

Simeon the Stylite, our local compatriot of the 6th century, climbed up to the top of a column near Aleppo, and there he stayed for decades up until his death.  People came in their thousands to see him up there.  And there he was, on top of the pillar, preaching and praying.   It was a great publicity success, and in that era quite a number imitated him.   In ’81, it was Saint Simeon that I asked to show me from his place up there on top of the pillar, the priorities for our Church in this shambles of the Middle East.  It was not himself that he had put on show at the top of a pillar, as the Roman Emperors did, but rather his spiritual relationship with God.  And that is worth all the trouble of getting it up there, demonstrating it and announcing it! 

The demonstration may come to nothing as a result of its own deficiency, but also the risk is that this relationship is so strong that it pushes towards scandal and matyrdom.  For the relationship would be the obvious opportunity to show oneself definitively, were it not for the necessity of finding oneself as the one who does the dirty work, the hangman, the traitor and so on, and then, how do we preserve mildness and humility of heart?

Life takes on the  task of humbling us as much as is necessary for our salvation...and for now, there is this beautiful book!