We are stepping through his orchards, crunching grasses and wild thyme underfoot, rich aromas rising around us in the crisp morning air. I have come to walk these fields with Elias Antar.
I first met Elias in February after a mutual friend in Chicago, an Assyrian Christian from his village, introduced us long distance. I have begun to think of Elias, now 73, as the mayor of the villages that string along the Khabur River. Since he returned following the ISIS assault and takeover in 2015, he has not stopped cajoling others to join him. When we met again on a bright day in November, he wanted to introduce me to his pomegranate trees.
Tel Tal is one of 16 villages the Islamic State militants nearly destroyed when they invaded five years ago. ISIS attacked other villages first, giving Elias, his wife Shamiram, and other residents time to escape by boat. The fighters kidnapped 250 Assyrians and held them for months, later executing three men wearing orange jumpsuits (whom Elias knew well) in one of the infamous ISIS videos.
In Tel Tal the gunmen torched many homes and set explosives to blow up St. Odisho Church. Elias' home sits down a dirt track surrounded by open fields, and it was largely undamaged. But ISIS set fire to his fields, including his pomegranates.
When Christian and Kurdish forces retook the area a year later, Elias and Shamiram returned: "We checked for land mines ourselves and risked our lives to come back."
Elias went to work replanting his fields, reviving stands of figs, apples, and olives, and setting up beehives. From his charred pomegranate trees he took cuttings, cultivated them on his patio, and replanted his grove. For the first time, this year the trees fruited.
He steps proudly into the midst of them, each one teeming with red orbs so heavy and fat they look unreal, as though someone hung Christmas balls on the sprawling young branches. Elias picks five pomegranates and lays them out on a table in his courtyard where we can marvel over them as we sip coffee. He fingers his prayer beads and says with a laugh, "These are the seeds of ISIS."
Danger and fear loom heavy over northeast Syria. Smoke rises from the front lines in Tel Tamer just miles away where Turkey is fighting Kurdish forces. On the highway visible from Elias' window, Russian convoys advance in a black-green line.
ISIS sleeper cells pop up, and in the spring this year they burned wheat fields nearby. Two days before I visited Elias, the group claimed an attack that killed an Armenian priest and his father on a road about 30 minutes away. Who would plant trees and expect to see them bear fruit in so uncertain a landscape?
Perhaps one trained by adversity to fix his eyes on hope. Elias' parents arrived in Tel Tal after they were forced from Turkey during its pogroms against Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Christians. Elias was born here in 1946. I imagine his father cultivating these same fields, banking against odds on a bumper crop.
Most of the villagers stayed away after the ISIS attacks. From 20,000 Assyrian Christians living here before 2015, less than 800 remain. "I am challenging all those who run away by growing things," Elias said.
Pomegranates from the time of the Greeks have been a sign of regeneration and fertility. The Old Testament priests wore pomegranates made of yarn on the hems of their robes, and Solomon's Temple depicted 400 of them in its latticework. In Jewish tradition the pomegranate is a symbol of righteousness, each containing 613 seeds that correspond to the 613 mitzvoth, or commandments, of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.
The pomegranate from Elias now sitting on my kitchen sill is a sign of hope in this Advent season of waiting. Out of the charred ashes of this world, out of dark, uncertain times, here or there, the hope of a Savior overcoming all things springs like a young tree bearing fruit.