A Personal Reflection on Building Bridges in the Middle East

I was born and grew up in Beirut, Lebanon.  I have lived there, off and on, for about half my life.  Today I’d like to tell you a bit about myself and my family, a bit about Lebanon, and to tell some stories about my recent time there.

My story begins in New England, where my great-great grandmother met a young man from Amherst College, who was preparing to become a missionary.  Despite the disapproval of her family, she married him, and set off for adventures she could not have imagined.

Abby and Daniel Bliss went out to Syria (what is now Lebanon) in 1856, and remained there for the rest of their lives.  In their first difficult years, they came to realize that evangelical work was an uphill battle.  The ancient Eastern Christian sects in Syria were already a central part of the fabric of society, and had been for nearly two millennia.  They did not welcome western Protestant intrusion!  And the Muslims, of course, did not appreciate Christian proselytizing.  So it was concluded that education would be a more effective means of spreading literacy and communicating values, and the mission in Syria changed to founding schools.  Daniel eventually founded the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut in 1866.  He modeled it on Amherst College, with which he remained in close contact, and later it became the secular American University of Beirut.  Their children, grandchildren, and a few of the 4th and 5th generation of the family continued on in Lebanon as missionaries, educators, and doctors.   My father and Alan Dorman’s father were brothers, and they and their siblings grew up in Lebanon.  My father’s later work, as Secretary of the Near East Christian Council, was to build bridges to the various Christian communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.

My childhood there on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in the 1950’s, was peaceful and idyllic. We spent the winters in Beirut and our summers in a small village in the mountains overlooking the sea.  My grandfather had bought a house and some land there during Ottoman times.  We explored Roman temples and Crusader castles, and I grew up knowing that many different peoples had lived in this small, beautiful land at the edge of the eastern Mediterranean.  They had brought with them their cultures and their differences.  But it was a peaceful time in Lebanon, the 1950s.  In my neighborhood, near the American University, we listened five times a day to the call to prayer, as well as to the church bells on Sundays.

18 years ago, my husband and I returned to live and work in Lebanon.  Our three children had grown up, and we were ready for another adventure in a place that we both knew and loved.  I knew that things would be radically different after the long civil war that had torn the country apart in the 1970’s and 80’s.  But I wanted to rediscover my roots, and to see if I had my own role to play there as an adult.  For most of the next fifteen years I worked at the American University of Beirut.  I am profoundly grateful for the opportunities I had to be a part of the complex fabric of life in Beirut, to share in the living heritage of my family, and to begin to understand the challenges facing people of all faiths and backgrounds in Lebanon at this time.

Lebanon is a complicated place.

There are 18 religious sects in Lebanon:  the Islamic sects are the Sunni, the Shia, and the Druze.  The other sects represent the various ancient traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  There is one Protestant sect.  Every Lebanese citizen is registered as a member of a religious sect.  And the government is made up of positions allotted to representative members of the religious sects, based on an old census taken in 1948…. And hence, in Lebanon, as in other places, religion is politicized, and can be the cause of conflict, or can perpetuate conflict.

As a result of the Lebanese civil war, and other more recent conflicts, the Muslim population in Lebanon has grown.  At the same time, significant numbers of Christians have emigrated, changing the demographic and political scene in significant ways.  Much the same is happening dramatically in Syria now, as a result of the years of conflict there.

The region is unstable now… some would say volatile.  The influx of massive numbers of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has created huge strains.  The government is dysfunctional, and unable to deal with the looming threats on its borders. And the religious sects have become more conservative and more conscious of survival than of cooperation.  This has made Lebanon a more disturbing, threatening, place than it was when I was a child in the 1950’s.  

 

But there are many individuals of good will who are living lives that bridge cultural differences, and who are working as educators, health workers, civil rights workers, or in their own ways, to promote peaceful coexistence. 

I met Najla in Beirut about 15 years ago.  She is a typical Beiruti in many ways – from a well-connected, conservative Muslim Shite family, who placed high value on education.  She was sent to the Protestant girls’ elementary school, and then to the Quaker girls’ high school, because her father thought these schools were the best.  She also had an excellent education in Arabic, which gave her a life-long appreciation of the Koran. 

In 1960 Najla had to beg her father to let her go to the American University of Beirut.  He only agreed to let her go if she covered her head, and promised not to sit next to any boys in classes!  She agreed, and went off to the AUB, the first in her family ever to attend university.  Najla quickly became involved with the intellectual life of the university, and part of a liberal, sophisticated student body.  She went on to major in philosophy, and eventually received her PhD in philosophy from Georgetown University, while raising her family of three small children.  Her education has given her an appreciation of all the traditions in her country, eastern and western, Christian and Muslim.

When I met her Najla was the Principal of the Arabic/English Quaker school that she had attended in high school.  I was a member of her board, impressed by the mixed group of friends she had gathered together, to advise and support her.   We faced many uphill challenges in trying promoting Quaker values in a mostly traditional Muslim neighborhood! 

Another member of Najla’s board was her lawyer, Marie Rose.  Marie Rose is a distinctive personality, with a fiery way of defending human rights, a passion for new ideas, and a deep abiding spirituality.  She comes from an Orthodox Catholic background which she rejected at an early age, as being too rigid.  She is now a practicing Buddhist, and she spends one month every year in India at her ashram.  Marie Rose attended French schools in Lebanon, and studied for her law degree in Paris.  Now, her primary work is as a human rights lawyer, very much concerned with the plight of women. Marie Rose helped to draft the Arab Human Development Report, commissioned by the UN in 2005.  The report focused on the rise of women in the Arab world, and the areas in which women’s rights were still lacking.

The three of us:  Najla, Marie Rose, and I became good friends.  We shared things on many levels: philosophy, religion, politics, our families, Lebanese village customs, education, and we enjoyed one another’s company as good friends do.  We also discovered that we were all spiritually inclined, and though our spiritual backgrounds differed, we practiced meditation together.

Najla, Marie Rose and I were seekers: one Christian, one Muslim, and one practicing Buddhist.  Several years ago, we traveled to Syria for a weekend retreat.  Our destination was the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian-- perched high at the top of a rugged gorge at the edge of the Syrian desert. 

We were eager to meet Father Paolo Dall ‘Oglio, the resident spiritual founder of the current monastic community.  Father Paolo is an Italian Catholic Jesuit priest. In 1982 he came upon the abandoned monastery–the earliest parts of which date from the 6th Century.  He stayed to restore it and to build a new community of seekers and religious practitioners. He conducts daily services which preserve the ancient Eastern rite of the Syriac Church.  But Father Paolo’s mission lies in interfaith dialogue, and in building bridges to the predominantly Islamic community in Syria.

Judaism and Christianity predated Islam in this ancient land, and Christian monasteries were protected as holy places by the prophet Muhammad.  But today very few Jews remain in Syria.  Before the current civil war, Christians accounted for just ten percent of this country’s population.  And now many have fled, and it is far less.

Father Paolo talked of returning to a tradition he called “Abrahamic hospitality”, referring to the fact that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all accept the Old Testament tradition and are people of faith.  He said of the local villagers, “These people have been in the same villages working (together) for fourteen centuries. We are together in front of God and recognize each other as believers. In the village (below the monastery), these Muslim, Christian and Jewish (people), they worship God in a kind of choir.”

Najla, Marie Rose, and I were just three of many visitors of all kinds of faiths, and seekers of faith, who climbed up the 347 stairs, cut into the rugged ravine, to the monastery.  We came for the dialogue, for the quiet of the desert, and to be open to whatever adventure was ahead.  For three days we participated in the life of the small community, in meditation three times a day, in informal conversation with Father Paolo and whomever else happened to be there, and in helping to prepare and share in meals with the nuns and monks.  We enjoyed the invigorating, clear desert air, and the stunning sunrises and sunsets from our perch overlooking the stark beauty of the desert.

But the most important moments for me were those when we were together in that ancient chapel…with the small barrel vaulted ceiling, and the faces of saints in the frescos from another era …and an Arabic symbol of Allah on the eastern wall, facing Mecca.  There was a permeating smell of incense, and I felt the presence of people of faith from much older times in this sacred space.  The ancient liturgy, the Syriac chanting, and the moments of silence were very powerful.  Powerful because each of us was present in the moment – within ourselves and drawing on our own spiritual traditions, but each reaching out quietly for the others. The “Abrahamic hospitality” was present there.

   ________________________

Stories don’t always have happy endings, and this one does not.  Father Paolo was expelled from Syria by the regime in 2012, at the very beginning of the civil war.  Then in 2013 he returned, despite the dangers, to help facilitate the release of two Syrian priests who were being held by one of the fighting militia groups.  He was kidnapped in northern Syria, and until now there have been only rumors about his fate.

 At Deir Mar Musa, only a few people remain, the outreach has slowed, and visitors no longer climb those 347 steps to the mountain top. 

And so the work of building bridges in Lebanon and Syria, has become very difficult in our times, and even dangerous in some parts.  But the tradition of “Abrahamic hospitality”, lives on among those who were lucky enough to visit Father Paolo’s monastery while he was there.  And it lives on with those individuals who continue to work, through many forms of outreach, to bring people together in that troubled part of the world.