By David F. Ross
In this section of the Journal of Maronite Studies (JMS), we bring you travel accounts of past and current travelers who have written about the Maronites and their environments. These accounts represent the views of their author(s). They may be edited for clarity and style.
"Beirut!", my Mother said. "Why do you want to go there?" It was an honest concern that many of my family and friends had. Of course I told them of my ten-year interest in the Middle East, especially Lebanon, and the intrigue of the region. I also told them of my fascination with Lebanese people I met in Dallas, particularly those I knew from the Maronite Catholic Church. For many years I have interested myself in and studied the Lebanese culture, its historical and biblical significance, the music (even now, while writing, I'm listening to Fayruz on one of about 15 Arabic music tapes and CDs in my collection), the works of Gibran Khalil Gibran, and of course the food. Oh, the delicious food I have come to love for many years", All this in Dallas, but still I needed to go to Lebanon.
"But why do you want to go there?" they persist. "Isn't that where we've had so many problems in the past?" Again, an understandable concern. I was nine years-old and nine-thousand miles (approx. 15,000 KM) away when the war began.
I knew that one day I would add Lebanon to my growing list of travel destinations. The relatively recent lifting of the U.S. ban on Americans travelling to Lebanon opened the door for me. But the official reason for my visit was to accompany my Bishop who was invited to participate in the consecration and dedication of a newly-rebuilt Catholic church which was destroyed during the civil war.
Let me honestly say that I did not know how I would be received. Would I be welcome? Would I be safe? After all, it is true that in the past, Americans have had problems in Lebanon, some severe. Would the Lebanese people be able to identify with me as an individual, separately from my government and U.S. policy? This is a story to answer all of that.
* * *
We left Dallas on the 22nd of June heading for Lebanon with Bishop Charles Grahmann, Mr. Joseph Ashmore and his nephew Frank Ashmore, and arrived in the Beirut International airport at about four in the morning, after a "34-hour journey" from start to finish (flight time plus many layovers). It was then that we found that our luggage did not make the same journey!
My travelling companions and I finally arrived at our primary destination: Notre Dame du Mont in Adma, just up the mountain from Jounieh. Operated by the Sisters of the Maronite Holy Family, this is a large residence with hotel-style guest rooms, salons and two chapels. Instantly, these lovely nuns became like our mothers, welcoming us. Sister Marie Françoise, with her partial command of English, tended to all our needs and accommodations.
Since no one in our group of four spoke Arabic or French (French being the second language in Lebanon, after Arabic), what we lacked in linguistics, Sister compensated in smiles and gestures. It was kind hospitality -- "an art of love" I would soon learn was typical of the beautiful generosity of the Lebanese people.
One morning at breakfast, I was explaining to Sister Marie Françoise that three years ago in Dallas, I had met a Lebanese nun who invited me to visit Lebanon. Unfortunately, I did not know what town she lived in. "What's her name?" sister asked. I replied with the only name I had known, "Sister Marie." "Well, we're all called 'Marie' here! What is her full name?"
After a minute of this exchange, I remembered I had brought with me a photo of her and showed it to Sr. Marie Françoise. "That's Sister Marie Goretti! She's one of us, from our order! I'll go call her." So, moments later I had a little reunion with my friend on the telephone. I'm not sure how we ever communicated with each other. She doesn't speak English, and I cannot speak Arabic or French, but we managed. We were able to meet in person a couple of days later, exchange gifts and promised to keep in touch. I'll never forget her. She spoke, "Daveed, come back, yes?" I answered, "Yes Sister, Insha' Allah (God willing)."
* * *
I recall Thursday evening, the 24th of June, riding in the cable car from the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon over the hill above the Mediterranean Sea, and hanging between heaven and earth above the Harissa forest hills. We could view the Bay of Jounieh and the Mediterranean Sea at night with the city lights flickering. I was stirred with a sense of awe while meditating upon this Lebanon that I had longed to visit. Nothing I was thinking of, however, was close to what our Lebanese hosts were thinking to themselves: "How are we going to tell our guests that Israel is bombarding targets in Lebanon?" Having been in Lebanon for less than 24 hours, we were about to experience what requires a lifetime for most people.
Just after being treated to an exquisite dinner at a restaurant in the ancient city of Byblos (the ancient Phoenician city that gave its name to the Bible) on the Mediterranean coast, we were informed of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon that night. (I learned a little later that our original plan was to dine somewhere in Beirut. But our ever-protective, and slightly secretive Lebanese hosts re-routed the dinner destination -- for safety!) I remember being unsure how to react to this.
Fearing that we would panic and not enjoy our visit, our Lebanese hosts guarded our itinerary until we were in the cars headed for dinner. Then they told us of the evening event -- Israel was retaliating for guerilla-launched rockets against its kibbutzes. As dinner was finishing, we began to hear and see anti-aircraft missiles being fired at the Israeli F-16 which was bombing bridges and power plants.
After returning to our residence following the dinner in Byblos, and at about 2:30 a.m., I was awakened by more sounds of explosions and gunfire. Ever-armed with my camcorder, I was able to observe and film this from the window of my guest room. What we were to learn the next day was that about 62 people were injured and eight people died. From the news reports we often receive in the U.S., I knew this sort of thing was nothing new here. But, it seems the only time Americans hear about Lebanon and the Middle East is when we are forced to sit through yet another negative CNN report about the region.
What the news does not tell us is that the Lebanese are people who deplore violence and want only peace. We are not told that they are good people who want to live peacefully without international intervention coming from so many sides which further complicates and aggravates the situation.
I, like almost all Americans who never witnessed this kind of violence, was anxious to see the reaction of the locals the next day. I was amazed at how the hustle and bustle of life continued as usual. And why should it not? I'll never forget when, a couple of nights later, I heard what I thought were more bombs, but as I looked into the sky, to my pleasant amazement, firecrackers were exploding. Fireworks! Only in Lebanon would you see life fearlessly celebrated with fireworks -- and just after being bombed two nights before!
At that moment I believe I came to know and better understand this fact: the Lebanese refuse to stop living. They refuse to live anything less than fully, and have demonstrated that they intend to pursue life, no matter what happens.
They are survivors. The land of Lebanon is a land that has suffered much. This country, being a crossroad for civilizations, had always suffered the consequence of its geographic location. Yet, living is stronger than death in Lebanon. This in itself is a lifelong lesson for us visitors. The Lebanese face things head-on with courage and determination, with love for life and country, with belief and faith.
It is a land of ancient history as well as one of recent pain. But for this American, the passion and determination of its people have opened my mind and stirred my heart. As your guest, I have witnessed your firmness of will to go on; to continue to live, laugh, love, rebuild, pray, marry, and work.
Though your pain has been a source of news and cinema for the rest of the world, especially the West, and particularly the U.S., the example of your courageous living is also a source of hope, respect and admiration.
As our journey continued, we toured the business district of Beirut; the Roman Law School ruins; Saint Maron's; the souks; Jounieh; Jeita caverns; Faqra and the Roman ruins; the Bedouin roadside tent where we were treated to Lebanese coffee, tea and the ubiquitous arghileh; Mayrouba; Harissa and Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral; Jounieh by cable car; Byblos, and much of the northern half of Lebanon with our hosts who soon were becoming friends -- Miss Guita Hourani, president of MARI, the Maronite Research Institute, and also Abuna Charbel Mehanna and Abuna Pierre Chemaly of the Lebanese Missionaries (Les Apotres). They were so kind in taking us to so many places of beauty and interest.
Since we were without luggage for the first three and a half days of our sojourn, we were compelled to do a little shopping in the city of Batroun to replenish ourselves with some new clothes and other necessities. It actually was quite interesting engaging with the shop keeper about what our sizes were, how much we wanted to spend on "emergency" clothing, etc. Having to wait for my new pants to be hemmed to the correct length gave me an opportunity to visit a nearby barber shop for a rare luxury. Since I hadn't shaved for three days, I was treated there to an old-fashioned straight-edged shave (I say treated because our hosts refused to let us pay for anything, not even my own $3 shave! -- and, as I was to eventually learn, Lebanese hospitality is not to be refused!)
So with new clothes and a smooth face we proceeded to Diman, the summer residence of the Maronite Patriarch; Bqaa Kafra and the house of St. Charbel; Bsharri and a visit to the museum of the famous poet, writer and artist, Gibran Khalil Gibran. We saw the famous cedars -- these more numerous in former times; Ehden; the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya, a 4th century hermitage high up in the mountains where the wonderful, elderly Father Joseph Al-Shaar served us homemade wine from the monastery's private cellars; and Aabrine for a splendid feast at the beautiful family home of Father Bernard Khashan in the presence of the Maronite Bishop of Cairo, Egypt.
On Saturday, the 26th of June, our itinerary took us south to Saida. But there was only one problem: the bridge we needed to cross was one of the targets of the Israeli bombing. And to my horror, I saw the destroyed cars on the roadside, crunched up like balls of paper. Little did the bombers care that while they were targeting this bridge, families were driving across it; their lives ended in a split instant. What a sobering effect this had on us four travelers. I cannot imagine the pain felt by the families of these victims.
Gibran writes, "Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses understanding..." but I struggle to understand the meaning of this lesson. The subject seems too serious and intense to grasp fully. Without living in Lebanon for an extended period of time, I do not imagine I will understand adequately. And yet, life goes on here.
Forced to get out of our bus at the huge hole in the ground, we carried our luggage alongside the road and accepted the kind offer made by a Lebanese soldier to take us and our bags by jeep to the next destinations: Dar El-Inayeh in Salhieh; Jezzine; Ain-el-Mir and several other small towns near Saida. It was in Ain-El-Mir where the church to be dedicated is located. What a pleasant sight to see when we drove down the main road! There, hanging above was a banner waving in the breeze and announcing a welcome and greeting for the Bishop and us, his companions. This would prove to be just the beginning of the heartfelt reception we were to receive.
The Church of Saint Nicholas, newly rebuilt, was to be the focus of our visit. Monsignor Georges Kwaiter; Abuna Antoine, pastor of the church; and many of the townspeople received us with open arms, kindness and warmth. That Saturday night at the church was the first part of the dedication.
Afterwards, many of us and the priests walked from house to house visiting the sick and greeting families. What a glorious welcome those families offered us. We exchanged greetings; tried to communicate; shared our stories and promised to pray for each other. These kind, good people invited us into the midst of their living rooms and we interacted in a very special way. I shall never forget those intimate moments that we exchanged: the families in their homes, the priests, the children, the Americans who had come from afar. I will remember the policeman we visited, who was forced to stay in bed because of a car accident. We visited a lady who was afraid about an upcoming heart operation. She seemed to put some hope in our visit and the prayers made over her. Then there was the elderly blind woman who listened to our foreign tongue, but could not lay eyes on us. She was prayed over and seemed so grateful for the gathering. At that moment I began to see the bridge we were building. It stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean all the way to Texas. I began to believe that there was true hope for some kind of unity, a common theme of my Bishop.
Afterwards, we all celebrated with a party in the open courtyard from about 9:00 p.m. till 1:00 a.m. About 200 people gathered -- each family with their own table completely filled with the best of Lebanese cuisine. A kind family invited me to share their table, offering me this and that. So much food! Would I like to try Grandma's Tabouleh? And Auntie's Kibbi! And how about the Hummus bi Tahini, and Baba Ghanouj, and so on! During all this feasting, we were treated to Lebanese music, a children's dance performance, and the famous Dabki group dancing for everyone. I gave it a try; never mind that I stepped on the foot of the poor young lady next to me. Three times!
And then the electricity went out (a not-too-infrequent occurrence in Lebanon, especially after the Israeli air raid). I think most people would probably run around like chickens with their heads cut off. But this is no problem for the Lebanese -- they were well prepared in advance by having an alternative source of power.
When it became late, it was difficult to say good-bye to these nice people who, hour after hour, showed us much hospitality and true welcome. In all the many countries to which I have traveled, I have never known such open hospitality as the kind offered by the Lebanese.
The next day, Sunday, the final part of the dedication of Saint Nicholas’ Church concluded with Mass. Then, I could better understand the importance of rebuilding the church. After so many years of destruction brought on by the war and many years of suffering, the new church was yet another sign of hope for the determined people of Lebanon. It offers a strong witness to their will to go on with normal lives.
Let the reader make no mistake! As a listener and observer of the story that was shared with me by so many people, I do not have pity for the Lebanese. Pity is given to the suffering who cannot take care of themselves. The people I came to know have shown clearly that they are taking care of themselves; I have admiration for their continuance and zeal for life.
I shall never forget the conversation I had with many townspeople about the long and confusing story of Lebanese politics of the last 25 years. My head must have spun when I heard about the many assassinations; the clashing factions and the sub-factions; and the Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, Americans and other foreigners. Though I must have looked confused, I was appeased with offerings of watermelon slices --something a little more familiar and easier to digest since the story certainly was not.
For American, an unusual scene on the road is the military check point with armed guards, soldiers and militiamen in position at virtually every kilometer. The checkpoint ritual was pretty much routine. My driver said "Bonsoir" to the soldier who would give a discerning look at me in the passenger seat, wave and allow us to pass.
* * *
I spent the last couple of days visiting between Beirut and Jounieh. While in Ain-El-Mir, I was invited by someone I met and who works at the American University of Beirut (AUB) to visit the institution. This fine school with its beautiful campus and scenic view of the Mediterranean coast was a place of tragedy and sadness many years ago. With peace restored and damaged buildings rebuilt or renovated, I was impressed with what I saw. My initial entrance was through the Medical Gate, so named because it gives access to the part of the campus where the Medical Studies buildings are located. The gate keepers were kind and helpful. Once through, I saw beautiful buildings, palm trees and flowers everywhere. Lunch across the street at the famous "Uncle Sam" restaurant was a perfect finish before my return flight to Texas the next day.
"Sharfouna!" my hosts said to me. "Will you honor us with another visit?" Let me say, that is easy to answer. While in Lebanon, I was shown incredible kindness and hospitality, which is a famous Lebanese trait. The Lebanese people have let me know that I was welcome; that they valued our visit. I am very grateful for I believe we connected in some special way. I cannot accept that all the sharing we had together was only to pass time. It was something greater. I could see that a bridge, between Lebanon and the U.S., could be built -- a bridge serving humanity that can offer contact for better understanding and mutual respect.
To Lebanon -- the biblical land of the "Song of Songs" and the homeland of the ancient Phoenicians -- yes, I am returning! Insha' Allah.
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